What the GMAT Is and How to Prepare for the Test

Business school hopefuls who are competing for spots at selective graduate business programs should understand that a stellar score on the Graduate Management Admission Test will improve their odds of acceptance, according to B-school admissions officials.

“While most business schools utilize a holistic review process and consider all parts of an application to paint a well-rounded picture of each applicant, the test score does play an important role,” wrote Lindsay Badeaux, a senior assistant director of admissions at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and an MBA admissions counselor at the IvyWise admissions consulting firm, in an email.

Badeaux adds that a GMAT score is “a strong indicator” of whether someone is academically prepared for B-school, “so admissions committees take it very seriously.”

If you’re wondering how to get ready for this standardized test, here is a comprehensive guide to the GMAT, along with tips and resources that will help you perform at your best.

What Is the GMAT?

The GMAT is a business school entrance exam that lasts nearly 3 1/2 hours, and includes the following four components:

— An analytical writing assessment, which measures critical thinking and communication skills.

— An integrated reasoning section, which shows how well students can analyze data and interpret information displayed in varied formats.

— A quantitative reasoning section, which determines whether students have strong mathematical abilities and numerical literacy.

— A verbal reasoning section, which evaluates reading comprehension skills, editing abilities and whether someone can make sense of written arguments.

Test-takers have the freedom to choose how they start the exam, beginning with the quantitative, verbal or writing section.

“The GMAT is consciously designed to assess skills that are most relevant for business school,” wrote Vineet Chhabra, senior director of product management at the Graduate Management Admission Council, the nonprofit organization that administers and designs the GMAT, in an email. “It’s a test of applied reasoning. It’s not just about knowing stuff; it’s about what you can do with your knowledge and how you can apply that in a thoughtful way during business school. It hits closer to what businesspeople do on a daily basis.”

[Read: What Is a Good GMAT Score?]

What Are Typical GMAT Test Scores?

GMAT test-takers who complete the test should expect to receive five scores, including section scores for analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning, plus a total score, which is based upon performance on the verbal and quantitative sections.

Scores range from 0 to 6 on the analytical writing assessment, which is graded in half-point increments, and extend from 1 to 8 on the integrated reasoning section, which has eight possible scores, all of which are whole numbers. Both the quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning sections have a minimum score of 0 and a maximum score of 60, but scores below 6 and above 51 are rare. Total GMAT scores range from a low of 200 to a high of 800 and are reported in 10-point intervals. These total scores are based on both the accuracy of a test-taker’s answers to questions on the verbal and quantitative sections of the GMAT and the difficulty level of the questions that a test-taker answered.

The average overall GMAT score between January 2015 and December 2017 was 561.27 out of 800. A score of 590 surpassed the performance of 52% of test-takers during that time frame, and scores of 760 or above corresponded to the 99th percentile among all test-takers for that time period.

How Does the Computer-Adaptive Format of the GMAT Work?

The quantitative and verbal reasoning sections of the GMAT each begin with a question of average difficulty. Then, the questions continuously vary in difficulty, depending on a test-taker’s accuracy, experts say. So, if the test-taker gets a question right, a harder question usually appears next.

But if a question is answered incorrectly, the next one is typically an easier question. By the end of the test, the computer calculates a score based on whether the test-taker was able to accurately respond to tough questions.

How Is the GMAT Different From the GRE?

Experts say one important distinction between the GMAT and GRE is that the GMAT was specifically created with business schools in mind, while the latter was designed for more general use across multiple types of graduate schools.

[Read: 5 Key Differences Between the GRE, GMAT.]

MBA admissions consultants say the GRE’s verbal section is generally tougher than the verbal portion on the GMAT, while the quantitative section on the GMAT is usually harder than the portion on the GRE.

How Do I Register for the GMAT?

Most students can register for the GMAT online by creating an account on mba.com, a website that GMAC runs, and then scheduling an appointment through the web scheduling system. However, students with disabilities who would like accommodations should fill out an accommodation request form before scheduling their test appointment.

Where and How Often Is the GMAT Offered?

There are GMAT test centers all over the world and throughout the U.S. Test-takers can identify convenient test centers on the ” Find a Test Center” portion of the mba.com website. The GMAT may be taken once every 16 calendar days, and it can be completed no more than five times during a 12-month time period. GMAT test-takers have a lifetime limit on how many times they can take the test, with a maximum of eight attempts permitted.

How Much Does It Cost to Take the GMAT?

Prices for the test vary depending on the test location. At U.S. test centers, the GMAT exam costs $250.

When Should I Take the GMAT?

Badeaux recommends that, regardless of how a B-school hopeful plans to prepare for the GMAT, he or she should schedule their test at least three to four months in advance of their first application deadline. “This will allow you some buffer room should you need to take the test again to aim for a higher score,” she says.

What Skills Are Tested on the Integrated Reasoning Section of the GMAT?

The integrated reasoning section is designed to assess an applicant’s data analysis and problem-solving skills — two skill sets that are important to many employers of MBA graduates.

“The IR section — developed with input from business schools and corporate recruiters — specifically measures real-world skills relevant in today’s job market, including synthesizing data from multiple sources, organizing data to see relationships and making judgments based on the same,” Chhabra wrote in an email.

Why Do Business Schools Use the GMAT?

Experts say business schools use GMAT scores to gauge whether prospective MBA students have the skills necessary to excel in rigorous courses.

“They want to prove ahead of time that a candidate will actually get through their entire program, and so the GMAT helps them make that decision with some level of confidence,” says Camille Coppock, marketing director for the Americas region at GMAC.

Kelly Wilson, executive director of masters admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, says the GMAT score is just one among many important components in an MBA application.

“While the GMAT is important, it is a single component of the larger application and is not the be all and end all,” she wrote via email. “The GMAT score and prior academic coursework often work hand in hand to provide insight into the candidate’s potential for academic success.”

How Much Does the GMAT Matter in the Admissions Process?

Chris Lele, a grad school expert and senior GRE and SAT curriculum manager with Magoosh Test Prep, says one common misconception about the GMAT is the idea that a score of 700 or above guarantees admission to a selective B-school.

“While surely that helps and is almost a prerequisite for a few elite schools, a super high GMAT score won’t totally cover over a weak application,” Lele wrote in an email. “Professional experience, letters of recommendation and even an entrance essay are all important parts of the admission process that students should also focus on.”

How Can I Set a Target GMAT Score?

Luke Parrott, assistant director of graduate admissions with the University of Denver Daniels College of Business, says B-school applicants should aim to meet or exceed the average GMAT score at their target grad business programs, and they should also attempt to beat the average GMAT score among B-school applicants from their region.

Parrott says someone who wants to gain admission to his or her B-school of choice would need a score of about 600 to be competitive, but he notes that graduate business programs vary in their test score standards.

How Long Should I Study for the GMAT?

Experts say that, in general, an MBA applicant’s performance on the GMAT is correlated with the number of hours he or she spent preparing for the exam, but there is no hard-and-fast rule about how much prep time is necessary since that will vary by student.

GMAC survey data collected in 2016 showed that GMAT test-takers with scores between 600 and 690 spent a median total of 80 hours, while those with scores above 700 used a median total of 90 hours.

Coppock says the amount of time to spend on test prep depends on an applicant’s comfort level with logic exams and how ambitious the target score is.

Coppock adds that MBA applicants often find the GMAT more challenging than previous standardized tests they have taken due to the emphasis on reasoning skills rather than knowledge of a specific academic subject.

Which GMAT Test-Prep Methods Should I Use?

Experts warn that preparing for the GMAT on one’s own requires discipline.

“Some applicants can manage with self-study but we find that a class, or even better, a private tutor, helps to keep students on track and reinforce the study schedule,” wrote Stacy Blackman, president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, an MBA admissions consulting firm, in an email.

Coppock says one way to find a test-prep support group is to sign up for a GMAT-focused meetup. She also says MBA applicants who are trying to decide on a test-prep method should think about what worked best for them during college.

What Are Common GMAT Mistakes and How Can I Avoid Them?

Lele says B-school hopefuls often get frustrated when they encounter challenges with their GMAT prep, and they wrongly assume they cannot improve their performance. He says a growth mindset can help students avoid this error.

“Some believe that the GMAT is something you are either good at or bad at,” Lele says. “As they begin their GMAT prep, they will construe early difficulties as evidence they fall into the latter category. But these are difficulties that most face when prepping for an exam as arduous and wide-ranging as the GMAT. Bottom line: Anyone, especially with the right mentality, can improve at the GMAT, and shouldn’t take early struggles as a sign that they are simply not good at the GMAT.”

Logan Thompson, an instructor at the Manhattan Prep test-prep company and the author of “Beyond the Content: Mindfulness as a Test Prep Advantage,” a book which will be released this August, says addressing negative thoughts and feelings is crucial for solid performance on the GMAT.

Thompson adds that the adaptive nature of the GMAT, which increases in difficulty if a test-taker answers a question correctly, makes the test particularly challenging from a psychological and emotional perspective. He says the GMAT is designed to test the limits of a test-taker’s abilities in order to assess their full potential. “So you feel like you’re just keeping your head above water the entire test,” he says.

David D. Schein, director of graduate programs and associate professor at the University of St. Thomas–Houston’s Cameron School of Business, says one key aspect of being ready for the GMAT is having the ability to get through test questions quickly. “So, getting practice at working the tests is important to improve both speed and confidence,” Schein wrote in an email. He adds that test-takers should aim to answer every question they are given on the GMAT, and they should be mindful of when during the day they schedule the exam, with the goal being to take the test during a time when they are at their peak mentally, whether that is in the morning or afternoon.

When Does It Make Sense to Retake the GMAT?

Experts say B-school applicants who are unsatisfied with their current GMAT score and are convinced they can do better often benefit from a retake.

“Data from GMAC shows that repeat testing can provide an opportunity for score improvement,” wrote Gregg Schoenfeld, senior director of research and data science at GMAC, in an email. Schoenfeld says three-quarters of GMAT test-takers improved their score when they repeated the test, with an average score bump of 30 to 40 points. He adds that 55% of test-takers who already had a GMAT score of 700 or higher when they retook the exam increased their score.

Nervousness or inadequate test preparation could explain why the score is not as high as expected on the first try, experts suggest.

“Sometimes just having sat through the exam once, learned the procedure and how it feels, will be enough to help a second time,” Alexander Lowry, a professor of finance at Gordon College and executive director of the school’s Master of Science in Financial Analysis program, said via email.

Lowry adds that the computer-adaptive aspect of the GMAT can be formidable, because even test-takers who are performing well may struggle with the material. “So if you’re taking the exam a second time, you’ll know to expect that and it won’t throw you off,” he says.

Blackman says students should aim to achieve whatever score fully reflects their abilities. “Applicants almost always know whether a test score is an accurate reflection of their aptitude versus an over- or underperformance,” she says. “Put your best foot forward, even if it means a retake to better align the score with one’s potential and previous diagnostic exams.”

What Are the Biggest Changes to the GMAT?

Chhabra says GMAC has introduced changes to the GMAT to allow test-takers to feel more confident and comfortable on test day. GMAC also provides test-takers with suggestions on which graduate management programs might be a good fit, he says.

[See: 10 Ways to Address a Low GMAT Score.]

According to GMAC, one recent revision of the GMAT involved shortening the exam so that test-takers spend less time at the test center. Another new feature is Select Section Order, which permits students to customize the order of the GMAT sections to match their preferences, GMAC states. In addition, GMAT test-takers now receive personalized recommendations on which B-schools they should consider “based on their interests, fit and score,” according to GMAC.

How Can I Improve My GMAT Score?

Business school hopefuls who want to raise their GMAT scores should first reflect on whether they are setting realistic expectations and if achieving their target score is actually required for admission to their first-choice MBA program, Coppock says.

She adds that applicants who put in maximum effort into their test prep but still came up short might be using a test-prep method that doesn’t match their learning style.

“Schools are looking for diversity in the classes they bring in each academic year,” Chhabra adds. “Your GMAT score is an important part of what you bring to the table, but a particular score doesn’t necessarily seal the deal in either direction. Look at your GMAT score as part of the overall value proposition that you bring to a school.”

Searching for a business school? Get our complete rankings of Best Business Schools.

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What the GMAT Is and How to Prepare for the Test originally appeared on usnews.com

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