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Everything You Need to Know About the GMAT


Every year, business school hopefuls spend significant amounts of time, money, and effort in order to perfect their MBA program applications and enter the competitive world of business school admissions. While your experiences, resume, and background are key aspects of your application, one of the first ways to stand out as a competitive MBA candidate is to prove your business aptitude by scoring well on the GMAT exam. The phrase “standardized test” alone is enough to intimidate even the strongest of applicants, but never fear; with proper preparation, you can gain an edge on the competition and conquer the GMAT! The skills you need to beat the GMAT can definitely be learned and honed! The first step is to familiarize yourself with the exam:

What is the GMAT?

The GMAT, or the Graduate Management Admissions Test, is a computer-adaptive standardized exam unlike any other. The exam is almost four hours long and is taken by over 200,000 aspiring MBA students annually. The GMAT is designed by psychometricians, built to test an MBA candidates’ business skills (analytical, writing, quantitative, verbal, and reading) and serves as an indicator of how well a business school applicant will perform in their MBA program. Over 2,300 graduate schools around the world use GMAT scores as a factor in admissions. Achieving a high score on the GMAT will have a positive impact on your likelihood of admission into the MBA program of your dreams.


What is the Format of the GMAT?

The thing to remember about the GMAT is that it isn’t testing how good at math you are or how well you understand the English language. Basic math skills and English comprehension are key to doing well on the exam, but you don’t need to be a calculus whiz or a best-selling author in order to score high! The GMAT aims to assess how well you solve problems using logic, especially under time constraints. It tests your analytical skills as well; i.e. how well you can work with substantial information and leave out unnecessary details. With under two minutes to answer each question, the test also gauges your decision-making and how well you perform under time pressure and with limited resources.


The exam is separated into 4 different parts:

         1. Analytical Writing Assessment 

It is aimed at measuring your critical thinking and communicative abilities. You will have to write an analytical essay, where you will have to form a judgment on a certain issue and evaluate an argument. Even though AWA has no effect on the general GMAT score, you are expected to get 4.5 points out of 6 or higher. Some business schools take the AWA score very seriously in their admission process! Thus, it is of utmost importance to present your thoughts in a clear and concise manner. You should join ideas effectively in order to create a coherent text. Also, you should make sure to provide very good supporting ideas for the main points you will be discussing. Last but not least, your language skills are key in this section. You should use appropriate expressions and accurate grammatical structures. 

Number of questions: 1 (essay question)
Allotted time: 30 mins. 
Score range: 0 - 6

        2. Integrated Reasoning 

It tests your ability to synthesize and draw conclusions from data presented in different forms. You may be asked to carry out graphics interpretation, table analysis, multi-source reasoning, two-part analysis, etc. It is vital that you read the data carefully and relate all pieces of information thoroughly. Like the AWA points, this score is recorded independently from the general GMAT score. However, considering that the score range is from 1 to 8 points, you are expected to get 5 or higher. Many business schools are considering the IR score as seriously as the overall GMAT score, as IR mainly shows your problem-solving and decision-making skills. 

Number of questions: 12
Allotted time: 30 mins. 
Score range: 1 - 8

        3. Quantitative Reasoning 

It focuses on testing your problem-solving skills and analytical knowledge using basic mathematical abilities such as arithmetic, algebra and geometry (don’t worry- you only need to know up to high school math!). The main issue with the Quantitative Reasoning section is translating English into math that we can work with, in other words, we need to interpret and break down complex problems into simpler components.

This section includes two main question types: Problem Solving and Data Sufficiency.

Problem solving is the typical multiple-choice math problem. It presents a question and five answer choices. You must use your logic and analytical reasoning to select the best answer.

Data sufficiency poses a question and offers two statements containing additional data. Your job is to evaluate whether the statements given provide enough information to answer the question using one of the statements individually, both together, or not even then. 

Number of questions: 31
Allotted time: 62 mins. 
Score range: 6 - 51

        4. Verbal Reasoning 

It assesses your problem-solving strategies and reading comprehension abilities when dealing with texts. It also tests how clearly and effectively you can communicate ideas in English. 

This section includes three main question types: critical reasoning, reading comprehension and sentence correction. Critical Reasoning works with a specific argument. You may be asked to evaluate the argument, find premises that either support or contradict it, identify underlying assumptions, make inferences, among others. Reading comprehension presents a larger passage than the text that Critical Reasoning offers. The main focus is on understanding how ideas in the passage relate to each other logically. You may read about any field or area such as biology, economics, astronomy, history, archaeology, etc. However, bear in mind that you will not be tested on the content of the passage but on its purpose, its structure and the argument that is put forward, in the case of argumentative texts. Sentence Correction evaluates your proficiency in English. You are given a sentence, part of which is underlined. The sentence may contain one or two errors within the underlined part of it. You will have to choose the construction that produces a correct sentence, according to the following criteria: clarity of expression, accuracy in the structures and conciseness. 

All three question types offer 5 possible answers. 

Number of questions: 36
Allotted time: 65 mins. 
Score range: 6 - 51

The Psychology of the GMAT

What is the “psychology of the GMAT?” A topic very often talked about when preparing for taking the GMAT is the psychological side of the exam. The side that does not have to do with our knowledge of mathematics and/or our good command of the English language, but with how our minds process information and respond to problem-solving while we are in the testing environment (that is, how we feel when we actually take the exam online or in a testing center). 

At Merchant, we look at this area as having two main levels: 

  1. Exam anxiety
  2. Build-in test psychology

Examination anxiety has to do with how we feel when we have to sit down and take an exam. These kinds of feelings are a sum total of our past experiences from taking quizzes, tests or large scale exams. They tend to start early on in our first years in school and can have a real impact throughout our lives. When preparing for the GMAT, examination anxiety can become a big obstacle in prolonged concentration and in considerably reducing stamina. The feeling test takers often report is that of “brain fog”: reading something but not understanding the meaning of what you are reading. 

Build-in test psychology is another matter. This is what we call The Dark Side of the GMAT. It sounds fairly cinematic, but it sure is very real. The Dark Side of the GMAT refers to the mind tricks the exam plays on the test taker and how these affect problem-solving. 

The GMAT in many ways redefines basic notions of everyday life, like logic, over-assuming, thinking inside and outside the box, and many more. We could even say that in some ways the exam challenges everyday “common sense”. Indeed, by using common sense most answer choices in the Verbal Critical Reasoning section, for example, look absolutely correct. And many times it’s a real struggle for test takers to take them apart and understand why the wrong ones are indeed wrong. 

This is the main reason most people preparing for the GMAT are using strategies and strategic thinking. Strategies keep us in the “GMAT frequency”, a way of thinking where our selection criteria are in the same frequency as GMAT criteria. As long as that is the case, we can read what we need, focus on identifying repeated GMAT tricks and make sure we move on when the time is up. So, future test takers should be mindful to not only train themselves to mathematics and/or English but also to tuning into the “GMAT frequency” for the duration of the exam. 


GMAT Exam Day

Exam Day

On the day of your exam, you will be able to decide in which order you want to take the test. You may decide between doing Analytical Writing Assessment and Integrated Reasoning first, then continuing with Quant and verbal. You can choose to start with Verbal followed by Quant, and then go on with Integrated Reasoning and Analytical Writing Assessment. Finally, you can decide to tackle Quant first, followed by Verbal and next do Integrated Reasoning and Analytical Writing Assessment. In between these, you have the option to take 8-minute breaks

Another key aspect of the exam is that you are unable to skip questions. Leaving a question unaswered means being severely penalized and therefore getting a much lower score. However, there is always the option of guessing, or how we like to think of it, “making an informed choice” in a very difficult question. This implies speculating between options after consciously having eliminated two or three choices. So, the decision of which questions should be guessed depends on a reflection of your own strengths and weaknesses and entails a very thorough analysis of your strategies for the GMAT. What you need to do is completely forget about the question you just guessed and devote yourself completely to the next question. Overthinking in the GMAT is a liability!

How is the GMAT Scored?

Each section of the GMAT has a specific scoring mechanism. The scoring breakdown for the AWA and Integrated reasoning portion is as follows:

  • The Analytical Writing Assessment is scored separately from the other sections on a scale from 0-6, reported in intervals of 0.5. 
  • The Integrated Reasoning portion is scored separately as well on a scale from 1-8, in intervals of 1. Your score in this section depends on the number of questions answered correctly. You must answer all parts of each multi-part question correctly in order to receive points. 
  • While the scoring for these parts is usually not relevant for the final score, (we’ll explain more on this later) the score for these two parts should never be below 3 points. 

However, most business schools will focus on your Quantitative and Verbal scores. The Quant and Verbal segments (scored from 0-60) are combined in order to generate your GMAT score, which will fall on a scale between 200-800. The mean score for all GMAT test-takers is around 552. When identifying your target GMAT score, it is a good idea to research the mean score of admitted applicants in the programs you are applying to. Here are some factors that are taken into account when scoring your exam:

  • The Quantitative and Verbal sections are item-level adaptive and your score will be based on the following
    • The number of questions you answer
    • Whether you answered correctly
    • The difficulty of the questions 

What is a CAT?

In the GMAT world, a CAT stands for computer adaptive test. Only the Quantitative and Verbal sections of the exam are computer adaptive. This means that the difficulty of the questions you see will depend on your previous correct or incorrect answers. For instance, if you answer a question correctly, your next question will be more difficult. If you answer that question incorrectly, you will receive an easier subsequent question. However, your score will take into account the difficulty of questions you answered correctly or incorrectly. Think about it this way: Person A could get more problems incorrect than Person B, but Person A could still get a higher score because they saw more difficult problems. You must answer each question before you can go on to the next one, and you may not go back to change your previous answer. Finally, leaving a question unanswered results in an even larger penalty than answering incorrectly.


When Should I Take the GMAT?

It is best to begin identifying and researching your MBA programs of interest as early as possible in order to ensure that you remain up to date with deadlines. You may take the exam up to 5 times in one 12-month period. Additionally, you will need to allocate enough time for your GMAT exam to be scored so that it may be reported on time to your MBA programs of choice. 

While your unofficial report will be available immediately following your exam, it will take 20 days for your official score report to be generated. Prior to the start of your exam, you can select 5 schools that you would like your official score report to be sent to (included in your registration fee). Once you have selected your schools, they cannot be changed. For an additional fee, you may send your report to other schools (not selected on the day of testing) as well. Your GMAT score is valid for 5 years after you take the exam. 

As you may know, many MBA programs offer application rounds: Round 1 in September/October, Round 2 around January, and Round 3 around April. If you are applying in Round 1, for instance, it is best to have taken your exam at least 2-3 months before the application deadline if you would like to err on the side of caution. However, as long as you complete the GMAT at least 1 month before the deadline you should have ample time to get your scores in by the deadlines. With most schools you can apply with your current score and send an updated score a few weeks after the deadline. 

Another thing to consider is the amount of time you will need to spend studying for the exam. In general, the top-scoring GMAT test takers will spend about 120 hours (3-6 months) or more preparing for the exam. Remember, the best way to “beat” the exam is to be well-prepared!


Where can I take the GMAT? 

The GMAT is offered at test centers around the world (Click here to find a test center near you). Some test centers even offer special accommodation rooms. The exam is offered very frequently throughout the year (most days except for holidays) but can fill up quite fast, so check your closest test center to determine availability. 

How can I Register for the GMAT? 

In order to take the exam, you first must register on mba.com, the official website of GMAC. You will also need to pay the registration fee of about $275 (US), but the price may vary depending on your location (see GMAT Location Specific Pricing). Additionally, you will need a valid form of identification.

Where Can I Take The GMAT?

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