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How Hard Is the GMAT? A Business Leader’s Guide

Well, how hard is the GMAT?

If you’re considering an advanced degree in business, you’ll probably be asked to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT).

Many students already find standardized testing stressful, and nothing is scarier than the unknown.

That’s why in this guide, we’re unpacking everything you need to know about the GMAT, including how difficult the test is, the basic skills you’ll need for the test, and what you can do to prepare.

We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s dive in.

What is the GMAT?

The GMAT is a computer adaptive test that is often required for admission to graduate business programs (MBA) around the world.

It measures skills like reading, writing, quantitative abilities, and critical thinking.

The test is divided into four sections:

  • Analytical Writing Assessment (30 minutes, 1 question)-Analysis of an argument
  • Integrated Reasoning (30 minutes, 12 questions)- Table analysis, graphics interpretation, multi-source reasoning, two-part analysis
  • Quantitative Reasoning (62 minutes, 31 questions)- Data sufficiency, problem solving
  • Verbal Reasoning (65 minutes, 36 questions)- Reading comprehension, critical reasoning, sentence correction

Test-takers have the option to choose the order of the exam sections. The test takes 3.5 hours to complete and includes two optional eight-minute breaks.

Because the GMAT is computer adaptive, question difficulty is adjusted according to your performance. The first question is of medium difficulty.

If you answer correctly, questions become more difficult. Answer incorrectly, and questions become easier. This process continues throughout the assessment, allowing for a more accurate exam score.

Registering for the GMAT currently costs $250.

What exams are required for graduate school?

Graduate school applicants are typically required to take at least one standardized entrance exam.

The GMAT is used by MBA programs and business schools, but other programs use other tests.

These include:

Before registering for a test—and paying a $200+ registration fee—visit the graduate program’s website to ensure you’re taking the right exam.

This information can typically be found on the school’s application requirements page.

If you’re applying for a program that accepts both the GRE and the GMAT and you’re unsure which to choose, read our guide GMAT vs. GRE.

What basic skills do I need to know for the GMAT?

To perform well on the GMAT, you’ll need to demonstrate analytical writing, integrated reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning skills.

These abilities demonstrate your potential to perform well in business school and in a business-related career.

Analytical Writing

In the Analytical Writing section, you’ll analyze the reasoning behind a provided argument and write a critique of that argument. This essay is evaluated based on:

Integrated Reasoning

In the Integrated Reasoning section, you’ll demonstrate your ability to think critically and analyze data. There are four question types:

  • Multi-Source Reasoning
  • Table Analysis
  • Graphics Interpretation
  • Two-Part Analysis

Quantitative Reasoning

The Quantitative Reasoning section measures your ability to draw conclusions from data using your reasoning skills.

There are two types of questions: Problem-Solving and Data Sufficiency.

To solve these questions, you’ll need:

  • Basic arithmetic – integers, fractions, powers and roots, statistics, probability
  • Algebra – variables, functions, solving different types of equations
  • Geometry – properties of objects like triangles, circles, quadrilaterals, solids, cylinders, and coordinate geometry

In addition to understanding these principles, you must be able to apply them to word problems that blend arithmetic, algebra, and geometry.

Verbal Reasoning

The GMAT’s Verbal Reasoning section assesses how well you can read and comprehend written material, evaluate arguments, and correct written material to effectively express ideas in appropriate English.

There are three types of questions:

  • Reading Comprehension
  • Critical Reasoning
  • Sentence Correction

GMAT Scoring

The GMAT score report consists of five scores: the Analytical Writing Assessment score, Integrated Reasoning score, Quantitative score, Verbal score, and total score.

You’ll also receive a percentile rank that indicates how you performed relative to other test-takers.

Each score is reported on a fixed scale. Here’s how each score is determined:

Analytical Writing Assessment

The AWA score ranges from 0 to 6 in half-point intervals.

The essay is scored twice independently (one of these scores may be computerized) and then averaged.

If the ratings differ by more than a point, an expert reader provides a third judgement to determine the final score.

Integrated Reasoning

The Integrated Reasoning score ranges from 1 to 8 in single-digit intervals. Your score is based on the number of questions you answer correctly.

Remember that if a question contains multiple parts, you must answer all parts correctly to receive credit.

Quantitative and Verbal

Both the Quantitative and Verbal scores range from 0 to 60 in single-digit intervals. Scores below 6 and above 51 are rare.

These sections are computer adaptive, and your score is based on:

  • How many questions you answer
  • Whether your answers are correct
  • Difficulty level of the questions you answered

You will earn a higher score by answering more questions, answering more of them correctly, and qualifying for a higher difficulty level.

Scores decrease significantly for each unanswered question, so practicing your pacing is vital.

Total Score

Total scores range from 200 to 800 in intervals of ten. Two-thirds of test-takers score between 400 and 600.

Accepting, Cancelling, and Sending Scores

Prior to taking the GMAT, you will select up to five schools to receive your Official Score Report. You can select more schools for an additional fee.

  • After the test, you’ll immediately see four of your five scores: unofficial Integrated Reasoning, Quantitative, Verbal, and Total scores.
  • You have two minutes to either accept or cancel your scores. Cancelled scores are not sent to schools and do not show up on future GMAT reports.

If you don’t choose an option, your scores are automatically cancelled. You may also cancel your scores later on test day or, for a fee, within 72 hours after taking the test.

Important Note: Don’t cancel your score if you don’t have time for a retake. You may take the GMAT up to five times in a year, but only one time in any 16-day period.

  • The turnaround for Official Score Reports is 20 days, although they often arrive faster.

If you choose to accept your scores on test day, you’ll receive a printout of your Unofficial Score Report. This information is useful, but you can’t use it to apply to schools.

  • Within three weeks, you’ll receive a notice by email that your official scores are available.
  • The email will include information to help you access your scores online.

GMAT scores are valid for five years and are available for reporting for up to 10 years. GMAT score reports contain all GMAT scores you have accepted over the past five years.

How hard is the GMAT?

The average score on the GMAT (out of 800) is a 561. Only 27 percent of test-takers score above 650, and only 12 percent score higher than a 700.

For you, the difficulty of the GMAT will depend on what score you’re aiming for and how well you prepare.

What makes the GMAT hard?

Difficulty is in the eye of the beholder, but there are some aspects of the GMAT that most test-takers view as challenging.

  • For one, you’ll need the stamina to sit through a 3.5-hour test without losing focus.
  • This also means that you’ll need to pace yourself to answer as many questions as possible under a time constraint.
  • Unanswered questions have a significant negative impact on your score.

Additionally, some GMAT questions appear in unusual formats that will likely be unfamiliar to you.

  • Many students also find the amount of multi-part questions stressful.

This is why it’s important to take practice tests and increase your comfort level with GMAT question types.

  • Especially for non-native English speakers, the Verbal and Writing sections are challenging because they require strong English skills.

Grammar and vocabulary can be especially tough.

  • However, it’s helpful to know that business schools are advised to be sensitive to the fact that some applicants aren’t native English speakers.

Most of the math on the test is high school level, so you may be rusty on some of the mathematical skills required.

In addition, you can’t use a calculator on the Quantitative section (but you can on the Integrated Reasoning section).

How to study for the GMAT

Fortunately, there’s a great way to make the GMAT significantly less difficult: studying!

Let’s look at how quality preparation can help offset some of the most common GMAT challenges.

Stamina and Timing

If you’re worried about timing, take GMAT practice tests under the same time constraints you’ll face on test day.

You can find tons of resources on the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) website, including a free GMAT starter kit with two practice tests.

  • This will give you an idea of how well you’re pacing yourself and if you need to speed up.
  • With practice, you’ll also build stamina and develop a sense for how quickly you need to progress through the test.

Additionally, becoming more familiar with GMAT question types will help you move more quickly through the exam.

The format of the GMAT means that you can’t rely on some go-to pacing tips, like skipping questions and returning to them later. Instead, you’ll need to:

  • Get started right away. When you read a question, don’t fall victim to agonizing over how to solve it. Attack the problem immediately, even if your first move is to jot an important note or draw a Venn diagram. Doing something should hopefully kick your mind into gear.
  • Reread the question if needed. GMAT questions are complex. Sometimes, a question may be stumping you because you missed one small but vital word. If you feel stuck, reread the question, and you may find something you’ve overlooked.
  • Move on. You should try not to spend much more than 3 minutes on a single question (on some questions, you’ll need to move faster). There’s a timer in the top right-hand corner of the GMAT screen. If you see that you’re reaching the 3-minute mark and you’re not even close to solving the question, pick an answer and move on.
  • Don’t dwell on it. Once you answer a question, there’s no going back, so don’t dwell on whether your answer was correct. Shift mental gears each time you answer a question, and focus on one at a time.

Unusual Formats

Practice is the answer to this common challenge too. The more you answer GMAT practice questions, the more comfortable you’ll feel with the wording, format, and question types.

  • Many GMAT questions are testing your critical thinking and reasoning abilities more than any other skill.
  • The best way to sharpen these skills is through repeated, consistent practice.

Building familiarity with the test will help you feel more confident on test day, and you’ll move through the test more quickly than test-takers who are less familiar with the format.

Spend some time practicing all question types.

Then, pay attention to which questions seem to confuse you or give you the most trouble. As your test date approaches, focus your energy on these question types.

Grammar and Vocabulary

If you’re concerned about grammar and vocabulary, there are plenty of steps you can take to improve:

  • For the Analytical Writing Assessment, read sample essays and practice writing timed essays of your own.
  • If needed, study basic English grammar rules and concepts.
  • Make a list of the unfamiliar vocabulary words you encounter in your test prep, and create a glossary or flash cards.
  • Learn root words, prefixes, and suffixes that can help you decode unfamiliar words.
  • Prioritize grammar and vocabulary test questions in your preparation if you feel this is where you will struggle.

Math

If you’ve forgotten some of your basic math skills, like geometry, algebra, and trigonometry, revisit and review these concepts.

Simply taking GMAT practice tests and answering practice GMAT questions should also help jog your memory.

As far as not using a calculator, rest assured that complex arithmetic is not required on the Quantitative Reasoning section.

You may want to practice estimation skills at home to build your mental math skills. And of course, don’t use a calculator when you practice GMAT Quant questions.

Advice From an Expert

Luther Griffith, vice president for auxiliary enterprises at Sweet Briar College, has this advice for everyone thinking about taking the GMAT:

First, determine if your target business schools require the GMAT or GRE. Take advantage of online and hard copy practice tests so you are not cold going into the test, as some schools look at ALL scores. For your target schools, determine the type of business experience(s) they desire BEFORE acceptance, and then map a plan to acquire the experience(s).

Final Thoughts: How Hard is the GMAT?

The GMAT is a challenging test, but a high score is achievable with adequate preparation.

  • Most importantly, get your hands on some official GMAT practice tests.

With the first practice test, don’t time yourself. Simply get a feel for the GMAT question types and do your best to answer as many correctly as possible.

  • For the questions that you miss, read the answer explanations and develop a better strategy for approaching these questions in the future.

Spend some time practicing the skills that seem to be areas of weakness for you.

Work on practice questions (not a full-length practice test), study vocabulary, grammar, or math as needed, and build familiarity with GMAT wording and structure.

  • On your second practice test, time yourself.
  • See how much you’ll need to pick up the pace before test day. Again, read answer explanations for questions you missed and develop better strategies.

Repeat this process a few times, depending on how much improvement you need to reach your target score. Throughout the process, keep track of unfamiliar vocabulary words and create a glossary.

With just a few weeks left until your test, focus in on the question types that you struggle with the most.

  • Ultimately, remember that the GMAT is a standardized test, making it learnable with practice.

Yes, the GMAT is challenging. But by following these tips, you’ll feel confident and ready to tackle the test on your exam day.