Understanding the GMAT: A Test for Prospective MBA Students


The GMAT, or the Graduate Management Admission Test, is a standardized admissions test for prospective MBA students. Their scores on the test help business schools select which students they’d like to accept from the pool of applicants. So, if business school is on your mind, taking the GMAT (or maybe the GRE) is the first step to making your dream a reality.

A person points at the letters "MBA"

What does the GMAT test?

Successful business students have well-rounded skill sets, and their talents include problem-solving, communicating effectively, and interpreting data and graphics. The GMAT aims to test those skills and others, which is why business schools often consider an applicant’s results when determining whether to extend him or her an offer of admission.

Like all standardized tests, however, the GMAT comes up short of its goal. There is no way any one test can accurately predict how well you’ll do in business school or after graduation. Some talents just aren’t testable. This means that the GMAT is really just testing your ability to take a certain test under specific conditions in a certain amount of time. If you think about it, this is good news for test takers. Of course you’ll want to study if you hope to do your best, but one of the keys to excelling on the GMAT is understanding its format, how scores are calculated, and the time limits per section.

What is the GMAT like?

The GMAT is a computer-based test that lasts three and a half hours. It is composed of four sections, the first of which requires you to write an essay on a word processor and the last three of which are multiple choice.

Length of Section Number of Questions

Types of Questions

Analytical Writing Assessment 30 minutes One essay
  • Analysis of an argument
    (You can find a list of real prompts you might encounter on the GMAT here)
Integrated Reasoning 30 minutes 12
  • Table analysis
  • Graphics interpretation
  • Multi-source reasoning
  • Two-part analysis
Optional Break
Quantitative 75 minutes 37
  • Problem-solving
  • Data sufficiency
Optional Break
Verbal 75 minutes 41
  • Reading comprehension
  • Sentence correction
  • Critical reasoning

How is the GMAT scored?

GMAT scoring is more complicated than most first-time test takers expect it to be. In fact, test takers receive a score on every section of the exam as well as their percentile ranking in each section. (A percentile ranking of 50 on any one section, for example, means the student did as well as or better than 50% of test takers.)

AWA Integrated Reasoning Quantitative Verbal
Scored on a scale of 0.0–6.0 (half-point increments), with 6.0 being the highest possible score Scored on a scale of 1–8 (full point increments only), with 8 being the highest possible score Scored on a scale of 0–60 Scored on a scale of 0–60
% ranking % ranking % ranking % ranking

Additionally, test takers will receive a “total score,” a name which is slightly misleading because it only takes into consideration one’s performance on the quantitative and verbal sections. Total scores are given on a scale of 200–800, with 800 being the best possible score. Read more about how subscores translate into total scores here.

Because the GMAT is computer-based, it can calculate a test taker’s total score immediately. That means, as soon as you finish the test and submit your scores, you will receive some of your results: your verbal subscore, your quantitative subscore, and your total score. Your scores on the AWA and Integrated Reasoning sections, however, cannot be calculated immediately, and you will be able to view them online within 20 days of test day.

What’s it like to take the GMAT on the computer?

The GMAT is only offered on the computer, and if it’s the first test you’re taking in which you’re not physically filling in an answer sheet, it can take some getting used to.

While every section of the GMAT, besides the AWA essay, is multiple choice, you must click the bubble beside the answer you want to select and then confirm your answer. The caveat here is that once you click confirm, you cannot change your answer. In the same vein, you cannot skip a question on the GMAT, thinking you’ll come back to it later if you have time. Once you see a question, you must answer it to receive the next question.

The questions your test will ask you are not predetermined. Unlike paper-based exams professors may proctor in class, there is no version A, B, or C of the test. In fact, the GMAT adapts to your level of ability from question to question. The first question you receive in any section will be considered of medium difficulty. If you answer it correctly, the next question you receive will be slightly harder. If you answer it incorrectly, the next question you receive will be slightly easier. This helps the test hone in on your exact level of ability and award you a fitting score.

What score do I need to get accepted into business school?

The answer depends on the schools to which you apply. Most schools will share information about the average scores of last year’s incoming class, so your best bet is to contact the MBA programs that interest you and ask.

Some schools may employ a strict minimum (e.g., a total score of at least 500). Other schools may want to see you score at least X in verbal, Y in quantitative, and Z in the AWA section. Some may disregard the AWA section altogether. Again, the policy depends on the school.

How do I register for the GMAT?

Register for the GMAT here. (You can find information about accommodations for test takers with disabilities here.)

The test costs $250.00, and there is a rescheduling fee of $50.00 if you need to change your test date. During the test, you will have the option to send your Official Score Report to up to five schools for free. If you decide to send your scores to more than five schools, each additional score report will cost $28.00.

How do I study for the GMAT?

A woman studies for the GMATNo matter what score you need, it’s a good idea to study for the test. First of all, taking the GMAT is not cheap. Second, your Official Score Report will contain your scores from every GMAT you’ve taken in the last five years, so be careful about taking the official test multiple times for practice.

Luckily, there are resources out there for students of all levels. Mba.com, the official site of the GMAT, offers a suggested study plan and a handbook which details the ins and outs of the test. It also sells The Official Guide for GMAT Review, updated yearly, which you can find here. For additional practice, you could consider taking a prep course (usually offered for free or for a cost at universities and test centers near you), an online course, or practice books from outside sources. Some practice books, like Cracking the GMAT Premium from the Princeton Review, offer links to computer-based practice tests.

So, what are you waiting for? If you’ve decided on business school, it’s time to hit the books. Best of luck on your GMAT test!


About Gwen Elise

Gwen is an avid traveler who feels most at home in Kentucky and Argentina. Her closet is full of dark dresses, and her walls are papered in colorful maps. She likes to make puns, read, write, and translate to and from Spanish, and she misses Vassar College, her alma mater, which helped her get better at all of those things.

Leave a comment