What is the GMAT?

The Graduate Management Admission Test (or GMAT as it is more commonly known) is designed to test the skills necessary for success in graduate management programmes such as an MBA. It is highly relevant to the types of problems and situations encountered in real business, and has been linked to the qualities needed for leadership success. The GMAT is a fairly international test, used most commonly in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The GMAT is what is known as a power test. It aims to assess a candidate’s maximum reasoning ability and it does so using sophisticated computer algorithms, which respond to the answers a candidate has previously given. Tests like this are known as 'computer adaptive tests' and they are a good way of evaluating the differences between candidates, as they allow candidates to reach their maximum reasoning ability more quickly.

For example, a candidate who has successfully answered a question will be presented with a more difficult problem, to see whether they can also answer that, and this will continue until the candidate gets a problem wrong. Once the candidate has made a mistake they will typically be presented with questions of a similar difficulty, to understand where their maximum reasoning ability lies.


Success in the GMAT depends very much on practice. You can try sample tests here.


Who Uses the GMAT and Why?

The GMAT is extremely widely used and is accepted by more than 6,000 business and management programmes worldwide, at approximately 1,700 universities and organisations, and the reason it is so widely used is because it can predict programme performance. It can really help universities and employers see which candidates have the skills necessary for success. As such it is a useful benchmark for comparing candidates, many of whom have similar academic and professional experiences.


What to Expect from the GMAT

The GMAT is a very structured test that includes four key elements: Analytical Writing Assessment, Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning. Each element has a time limit, which together take 3 hours 30 minutes to complete (though you should probably allow for approximately four hours in order to take some breaks).Each of these sections is explored below.


Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA)

The AWA requires the candidate to read and understand a short passage that presents an argument. They must then critically evaluate this argument in an essay (time limit is typically 30 minutes). This is designed to assess a candidate’s critical thinking ability, and while the performance on the AWA section does not actually contribute to the overall GMAT score, it is still seen by universities and a poor score may harm your application.

The AWA section is awarded a score from one to six (with six being the best) and is double-marked by a computer programme and an expert. This gives a high level of consistency between candidates.

To achieve a strong performance on the AWA question, it is important that you critically evaluate the argument presented. This could include considering whether any assumptions, inferences or deductions included are valid, exploring the strength of the evidence used to support the argument, identifying any weaknesses to the arguments, breaks in the logic or anywhere more information is needed.

Explain how persuasive or unpersuasive you find the argument and why, and remember to stick to the facts. Do not be tempted to offer a personal opinion on the topic, provide alternative proposals or stray from the question provided.

You will need to express yourself clearly and concisely using appropriately language and syntax. It is paramount that you are able to communicate your thoughts and ideas successfully. It can be helpful to take a few minutes to think carefully about the material and plan your answer before you begin writing. Check that you have actually answered the question, that your response is organised appropriately, and that your ideas are fully explored and developed.

The GMAT publishers provide a list of example questions here.


Integrated Reasoning

Integrated reasoning is highly applicable to business situations, as leaders are increasingly required to deal with large quantities of data, understand them, relate them to one another, and make decisions based on their analysis. Like the AWA, integrated reasoning does not contribute to the overall GMAT score but a poor performance in this section may damage your application.

You will meed to answer 12 questions within 30 minutes. Questions are presented in four ways:

  • Graphics interpretation. You are required to look at and understand data presented in the form of a graph. Questions are presented as blank statements, with options selected from pull-down menus.

  • Two-part analysis. You will be presented with a number of potential components needed to create a solution. These are given in a table format and you will need to select one answer from each column to solve the problem.

  • Table analysis. You will be presented with data in a table and must organise the data to answer the question. You must select one answer for each statement; there will be a choice of two opposing answers (e.g. true/false, yes/no).

  • Multi-source reasoning. You will be presented with two or three sources of information on a page with tabs. You will need to move between these information sources, understanding and integrating the information provided to answer the question. Questions will either be multiple choice or a choice of two opposing answers.

To be successful, you must be able to understand and synthesize information presented in a range of formats. You need to organise information to see any relationships, connections or dependencies within the data. Identify and evaluate relevant data from different sources and combine these to solve complex problems.


Quantitative Reasoning

This part of the test measures your quantitative reasoning ability. It is a key part of the test and will contribute towards your GMAT score. You will be assessed on your ability to understand and interpret quantitative data, analyse and apply information given to solve problems, and to critically evaluate the sufficiency of data.

You will need to answer 37 questions within 75 minutes. Two types of question are used:

  • Problem solving. These questions assess your ability to work with numerical data to solve problems. These are multiple-choice questions and you must select the correct answer from the five possibilities presented. Some problems will be plain mathematical calculations; the rest will be presented as real-life word problems (numerical reasoning) that will require mathematical solutions.

  • Data sufficiency. These questions assess your ability to understand and analyse a quantitative problem and critically evaluate whether the data provided is sufficient to solve it. You will be presented with a question and two statements of data. You must determine whether either statement alone is sufficient to answer the question; whether both are needed to answer the question; or whether there is not enough information given to answer the question.

To be successful, you will need to understand basic algebra, geometry, arithmetic, applied maths and data interpretation. Calculators are not permitted, so you will need to work out problems by hand.

Remember to read the instructions carefully to ensure that you understand and answer the problems correctly.


Verbal Reasoning

This section of the tests assesses your ability to read, understand and apply written material. This section does contribute to your GMAT score.

You will need to answer 41 questions within 75 minutes. There are three types of questions:

  • Sentence correction. You will be presented with a question with text that is part-underlined, followed by five potential answers to correct it. One of these will be the original. Your job is to choose the best option from the choices given. This tests grammar as well as effective expression. When considering your option think about grammar, the words used, and how the sentence is put together. Look for an answer that is clear and precise, grammatically accurate and structured sensibly, with no ambiguity or unnecessary information.

  • Critical reasoning. This tests your ability to evaluate written material. You will be presented with some text which you need to read and understand, and then use to answer the multiple-choice question. Five potential answers will be provided and you must decide which is the most appropriate. When considering your options, think about any assumptions or inferences within the text, the strength of any evidence provided, and the clarity and logic of the conclusion.

  • Verbal comprehension. This tests your ability to understand a piece of text - both the explicit content and the implied content. You will be presented with a passage of text and a number of multiple-choice questions, each with five potential answers. The passage can be about almost anything, and the questions provided will test how well you have understood it. The GMAT uses reading passages of approximately 200 to 350 words. Each passage has three or more questions based on it. The questions ask about the main point of the passage, about what the author specifically states, about what can be logically inferred from the passage, and about the author's attitude or tone.

To be successful, you will need to be able to read and understand passages of text. You must be able to think critically and read materials in an analytical, evaluative manner. Make sure that you are familiar with basic grammar, and ensure that you can recognise the key elements of critical appraisal: things like inferences, assumptions, deductions and conclusions within a passage of text.


How to Prepare for the GMAT

Preparation is essential for success on the GMAT. Ensure that you understand exactly what types of questions will be presented in each of the sections, and how to answer them. There are many practice materials available that can help you with this, including those available here.

Brush up on your basic skills. Ensure that you have the basic numerical, written, grammatical and critical skills needed for success. Practise these in your day-to-day life, for example try to work out any quantitative problems you encounter without using a calculator.

The GMAT is an unusual test, as you are able to apply to take the GMAT when you would like to. This means that you can really plan and structure your preparation around your timeframes, but do wait until you are ready before you sit the test. There is no point in taking the GMAT until you have prepared fully.


Taking the GMAT

You only need basic computer skills to be able to complete the GMAT exam. Candidates only need to be able to:

  • Use a mouse
  • Enter responses to questions in on-screen answer boxes
  • Move on to the next question
  • Use a word processor function
  • Understand how to access the "Help" function

Make sure you familiarise yourself with the mechanics of taking a computer-adaptive test by taking practice GMAT tests before attempting the real thing.


GMAT Questions

The verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning sections of the GMAT are computer-adaptive. In a computer-adaptive test, if a candidate gives the correct answer to a question, the following question provided will be more difficult. If a candidate answers a question incorrectly, the following question will be easier.

In a computer-adaptive test, only one question at a time is presented. Because the computer scores each question before selecting the next one, you may not skip, return to, or change your responses to previous questions at any point during the test.

The questions used in the computer adaptive sections of the GMAT are taken from a large bank of possible questions. The specific questions you will be asked will depend entirely on your performance during the test.


Answering GMAT Questions

Randomly guessing answers can significantly lower your scores on the GMAT exam. If you do not know the answer to a question, you should try to eliminate as many answer choices as possible and then select the answer you think is best.


Completing the GMAT Exam

During the GMAT, pacing is critical because there is a severe penalty for not completing the exam. Both the time and number of questions that remain in the section are displayed on the screen during the exam. There are 37 Quantitative questions and 41 Verbal questions. If a question is too time-consuming or if you don’t know the answer, make an educated guess by first eliminating the answers you know to be wrong, before moving on. Make sure you complete each section of the test.


GMAT Scores

The ‘Total Score’ excludes the analytical writing assessment, and ranges from 200 to 800. The score distribution resembles a bell curve with a standard deviation of approximately 100 points. About two-thirds of test takers score between 400 and 600, with a median score of around 500.

Most business schools publish the average and median score of their latest intake, which can give you an indication of the score that you will need for admission.


How is the GMAT Scored?

Candidates' GMAT scores are determined by:

  • the number of questions answered;
  • whether the questions have been answered correctly or incorrectly;
  • the level of difficulty and other statistical characteristics of each question.

The questions in an adaptive test are weighted according to their difficulty and other statistical properties, not according to their position in the test.

Note that most international MBA providers only evaluate the quantitative section of the GMAT when considering candidate applications. This is because the quantitative section of the GMAT is generally considered to be the most difficult.

Interested in online MBAs? Read our list of the top 10 options.