Business Administration

What Is the GMAT?

What Is the GMAT?
A lower-than-average GMAT score won't result in an automatic rejection, and a perfect score won't guarantee admission. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry October 20, 2020

Aspiring MBAs spend a lot of time stressing about the GMAT, assuming their scores will make or break their chances of getting into a top business school. The problem is that's the exact wrong way to approach this exam.

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Many master’s-level business school programs seek applicants with three qualifications: a bachelor’s degree in a related discipline, at least two years of professional experience in business, and a GMAT score over 600. If you meet the first two requirements but haven’t sat for a standardized test in a while, the third may throw you for a loop.

You might already know that the GMAT is something like the GRE—a test that some graduate schools use to gauge whether prospective students have what it takes to succeed in higher-level classes. What you might not know, however, is what kinds of questions are on this exam, when you should take it, and how to prepare for it. You may even assume—incorrectly—that the exam tests business knowledge and skills. It doesn’t.

Let’s start at the beginning. The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is a marathon, four-hour exam that purports to measure critical reasoning, grammar, math, problem-solving, analytical writing, and reading comprehension skills. Most (but not all) MBA programs and other master’s-level business programs require applicants to submit GMAT scores. However, it’s rarely the most important component of a business school application. A lower-than-average score won’t result in an automatic rejection, and a perfect score won’t guarantee admission.

Now let’s dig deeper. In this article, we answer the question What is the GMAT? and cover the following:

  • What’s the difference between the GMAT and the GRE?
  • Who is responsible for the administration of the GMAT?
  • Is the GMAT only for business school students?
  • How many sections does the GMAT have?
  • What kinds of questions are in each section?
  • What skills and abilities does the GMAT measure?
  • In what way is the GMAT “computer adaptive”?
  • How many times can someone take the GMAT?
  • Will a low GMAT score keep me out of the top MBA programs?
  • What can I do to prepare for the GMAT?
  • Are there MBA programs that don’t require GMAT scores?

What’s the difference between the GMAT and the GRE?

The GMAT and the GRE share a surprising number of similarities, given that one applies to b-school admission and the other to anthropology master’s programs. Both tests are timed, taken online, take about three and a half hours to complete (without breaks), and have three main sections.

The ‘M for management’ in GMAT suggests that this exam measures a test taker’s management skills. Even so, the reality is that the GMAT exam—much like the GRE—measures reading comprehension, analytical writing, and mathematics skills. The most significant difference between these two exams is that the GMAT focuses more heavily on quantitative and analytical skills, while the GRE focuses more on verbal reasoning skills. The GMAT also costs more to take; $250, compared to $205 for the GRE.

You may be wondering why business schools prefer that applicants submit GMAT scores rather than GRE scores, given that these exams have so many similarities. The quick answer is that most actually don’t—at least not officially. As of 2016, one Kaplan Test Prep Survey found that 92 percent of business school admissions officers accepted the GRE as an alternative to the GMAT, and 73 percent said neither exam taker has an advantage. There are even tools that let admissions officers convert GRE scores into approximate GMAT scores.

However, be aware that there are MBA scholarships that are open only to high GMAT scorers. Also, some admissions officers favor applicants who submit GMAT scores instead of GRE scores. This is because the GRE is widely regarded as easier than the GMAT, making a high GMAT score more impressive.

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Who is responsible for the administration of the GMAT?

The GMAT was developed by the Graduate Management Admission Council (or GMAC, then an association of nine business schools) in 1953. The group’s goal was to create a standardized test that would help business schools select the most qualified applicants and those most likely to succeed. At first, it was used by just over 50 colleges and universities. Today, more than 7,000 programs at graduate schools worldwide ask applicants to submit GMAT exam scores. The test is administered hundreds of thousands of times each year by testing centers affiliated with GMAC.

Is the GMAT only for business school students?

There aren’t many compelling reasons to take the GMAT unless you’re applying to graduate business programs. It was designed by business schools to gauge the fitness of prospective business school students, after all. It’s also accepted by all business schools, whereas some b-schools won’t accept a GRE score report in place of GMAT scores.

The bottom line is that unless you plan to enroll in an MBA program or another business-focused program, there’s really no reason to take the GMAT. On the other hand, if your goal is to get into one of the top MBA programs, taking this exam shows that you’re serious about success.

How many sections does the GMAT have?

There are four distinct scored GMAT sections:

  • Analytical Writing
  • Integrated Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Verbal

Test takers can choose the order to tackle each of those sections when they sit down to take the exam. There are three possible section order sequences:

  1. Analytical Writing, Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Verbal
  2. Verbal, Quantitative Reasoning, Integrated Reasoning, Analytical Writing
  3. Quantitative Reasoning, Verbal, Integrated Reasoning, Analytical Writing

GMAT test-takers have the option to take two 8-minute breaks during the test.

What kinds of questions are in each section?

The Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) section asks test takers to write an analysis of an argument, scored by both a computer program and a human grader. Test takers first read a brief argument and then critique that argument based on the author’s reasoning. Some people choose to tackle this 30-minute section first as a warm-up.

The Integrated Reasoning section, which also lasts 30-minutes, consists of 12 multi-part data interpretation, verbal, and mathematics problems. Test takers must answer multi-source reasoning questions, two-part analysis questions, graphics interpretation questions, and table analysis questions. To get credit for having completed a problem in this section, test takers must answer every part of the problem.

The 62-minute Quantitative Reasoning section is made up of 31 problems, with two question types: five-option multiple-choice questions focused on high school-level mathematics (no calculators allowed), and data sufficiency problems, which consist of a question and two statements. For this latter question format—unique to the GMAT—the test taker must determine whether the information provided in the statements is sufficient to answer the question.

The Verbal section lasts 65 minutes and consists of 36 five-option multiple-choice problems. These problems fall into three categories: reading comprehension questions, critical reasoning questions, and sentence correction questions. No specialized knowledge is required to answer the verbal questions. While this section does evaluate English language skills to some extent, the emphasis is more on analytical thinking.

The Analytical Writing and Integrated Reasoning sections are scored separately, while the Quantitative and Verbal sections generate a combined score. Individual section scores are added together to calculate a final total score. The score range runs from 200 and 800.

What skills and abilities does the GMAT measure?

In theory, the GMAT exam measures proficiency in broad skill areas so business schools can get a sense of how successful you’ll be in a given academic program.

  • The Analytical Writing section measures English language communication skills and critical thinking skills
  • The Integrated Reasoning section measures data analysis and extrapolation skills
  • The Quantitative Reasoning section measures mathematics skills and mathematical reasoning
  • The Verbal section measures reading comprehension skills and arguing skills

What the GMAT can’t measure is a test taker’s future business success. One survey of hundreds of MBA alumni published in the Journal of Education for Business found that there was no correlation between a person’s GMAT score and their post-MBA success. Some high scorers had lower post-graduation starting salaries and pay over a five-year period, while some of the highest earners had relatively low GMAT scores. It’s important to remember that the GMAT can’t measure creativity, drive, enthusiasm, or charisma.

In what way is the GMAT “computer adaptive”?

The Verbal and Quantitative sections of the GMAT are computer adaptive, which means that the test gets easier or harder based on how well you’re doing on it. A computer-adaptive test uses the test taker’s previous answers to all questions to select the next problem. The more questions you answer correctly, the more difficult the test questions become; when you answer incorrectly, the exam likely asks you a less-difficult question next.

The more problems the test taker answers, the more information the test engine accumulates, which it uses to select the next question’s difficulty level. The upside (for business schools) is that computer-adaptive testing results in test scores that are much more accurate. The downside (for test takers) is that it’s impossible to skip problems, return to previous problems, or change an answer in the Quantitative and Verbal sections.

How many times can someone take the GMAT?

It’s not unusual for people to take the GMAT test more than once. That’s because retaking the GMAT is the simplest way to deal with a low score. There are almost no downsides to retaking the GMAT (other than cost) because most schools will only look at the higher score. You can retake the GMAT a mere 16 days after taking it for the first time, and then every 16 days after that up to a total of five times in 12 months. You can’t keep taking it forever, though. In 2016, a lifetime limit was established. An individual can take the GMAT no more than eight times total in their lifetime.

Will a low GMAT score keep me out of the top MBA programs?

Not necessarily! Every business school uses different criteria for assessing applicants and making admissions decisions. Some colleges and universities give more weight to GMAT scores, others give more weight to undergraduate GPA, some accept GRE scores as an alternative to the GMAT, and others don’t require applicants to take either test.

GMAT scores are just one factor in the evaluation process, which considers everything from academic background to recommendations to professional experience to personality. While a low score might lead to an applicant not making it past the first review, GMAT scores rarely factor when an admissions officer is trying to decide between two qualified candidates. As long as you meet the minimum threshold a school requires, you still have a chance.

What can I do to prepare for the GMAT?

Step one is to take a practice test. GMAC offers several free practice exams online. Taking one can give you a baseline idea of where your skills currently lie. You’ll see immediately where you need to put your nose to the grindstone so you can create a strategic GMAT preparation plan.

Next, look up the average GMAT scores of the business schools you’d most like to attend. That’s the threshold you want to hit when you actually take the test. If you’re not even close, you have your work cut out for you.

Then decide how much work you need to put into preparing for the GMAT and how much time you can reasonably spend on test prep each week. If you can devote 100+ hours to studying over a six- to eight-week period, that averages out to roughly 15 hours per week. If you have personal and professional commitments that can’t be put aside for a few months, you may need to study fewer hours each week for a more extended total prep period.

Create a study plan, too. You should block out specific times each day for studying—preferably during periods when you won’t be distracted by work or kids and when your energy levels are high. Don’t try to cram before bedtime if you’re not a night owl or study in the early morning hours if you’re barely awake until 10 am.

Throughout your prep period, take as many timed practice tests as you can. Mimic the conditions under which the real GMAT is administered at test centers as much as you can. Don’t use a calculator. Give yourself the optional breaks. Don’t look back at previous sections. Take notes on scratch paper. The goal is to get as comfortable as possible with the actual test conditions you’ll encounter in the testing center so that when you sit for the GMAT on test day, you feel relaxed and ready to do your best.

And finally, schedule your test for four months before your first application deadline, so you have plenty of time to retake the GMAT if you need to.

Are there MBA programs that don’t require GMAT scores?

There are MBA programs that don’t require applicants to submit GMAT scores, though nearly all elite business schools ask for them. Those willing to waive the GMAT requirement often expect people who apply without taking the test to prove exemplary work experience demonstrating exceptional management skills.

If you’ve been searching for MBA programs that don’t require GMAT scores, you should ask yourself why you’re resistant to taking this exam. Yes, it can be anxiety-inducing to prepare and then sit for this kind of test. Taking the GMAT is an intense experience, and some people are definitely better than others at acing standardized tests. But if your goal is to get into a great MBA or business-focused master’s degree program, realize that those programs are intense, too.

Colleges and universities with top MBA programs use the GMAT as a measure not of how smart an applicant is or how business-savvy they are, but of how likely it is that they will put in the work necessary to succeed. If you want to go to business school, seriously consider taking the GMAT. If you don’t score as high as you’d like, retake it. The no-GMAT-required programs will still be there if you really need them.

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