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How to Prepare for Taking the GMAT

man studying for test at desk at home
man studying for test at desk at home

Most top business schools will require applicants to take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). The higher your score, the more competitive your application could be.

In this Article

What is the GMAT?

The GMAT was developed by nine leading business schools more than 50 years ago. They wanted a consistent assessment that could tell them whether an applicant might be successful studying in a business and management program.

Over the years, the test has been evaluated, updated, and refined to its present four-section format. Worldwide, more than 2,100 universities and institutions use the GMAT as part of their application process.

Schools must be accredited in order to receive GMAT scores. Accreditation is a process that assures students of a quality program. You can check GMAC's website to see whether the business school you are applying to accepts GMAT scores.

Why is it Important?

The highest-ranking business schools require the GMAT and expect scores of 700 and above. However, many quality schools will accept scores in the 600s.

As part of a growing trend, some well-respected schools have made the GMAT optional or have eliminated the test as a requirement. These schools have decided to put more emphasis on work experience or other parts of the application packet.

5 Things You Should Do to Ace the GMAT

1. Understand the Test Format

The GMAT is divided into four sections, each of which is timed with a total time allotment of a little over three hours. There are two optional breaks of eight minutes each. You have some flexibility with the order in which you complete the sections.

You can register online to take the GMAT at a testing center that's convenient for you. You will complete the test at an individual workstation where you will not be distracted.

Taking the GMAT Online

The online form of the GMAT must be taken on your own computer, either a PC with Windows or a Mac. Your test will be proctored by a live person remotely, and you'll communicate with a camera and microphone.

2. Become Familiar with the Types of Questions that will be Asked

The GMAT includes a range of question types, including:

  • Quantitative reasoning: 62 minutes, 31 multiple choice questions. You will be tested on data sufficiency and problem solving.
  • Verbal reasoning: 65 minutes, 36 multiple choice questions. You will be tested on reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correctness.
  • Integrated reasoning: 30 minutes, 12 questions that involve graphic interpretation, table analysis, two-part analysis, and multi-source reasoning.
  • Analytical writing: 30 minutes, 1 question. You will write an analysis of an argument.

The quantitative and verbal reasoning questions are computer-adaptive. That means if you answer a question correctly, the next question will be more difficult. If you answer incorrectly, the next question will be simpler. You are scored on both the accuracy of your answers and the difficulty of the questions.

What's on the GMAT?

When you take the GMAT, you'll receive different questions than the person sitting in the next cubicle. The questions are randomly selected from a test bank of several similar questions, and because of the computer-adaptive algorithm, your performance on one question will influence the specific question you will get next.

You can never predict what exact questions you will receive, but all the questions are testing similar sets of knowledge and abilities. Here's a sampling of the types of questions you might receive on the GMAT.

Verbal Reasoning
  • Reading comprehension—You may read a short passage with an underlined phrase or sentence and choose one of several statements that best explains it.
  • Sentence correction—You might be given a passage with a grammar or sentence structure error. You will choose one of several statements that best corrects the error according to standard English.
  • Critical reasoning—You will read a short passage followed by a question that requires you to make an inference, make a prediction, or identify an argument. You will choose the best response from several statements.
Quantitative Reasoning
  • Problem solving—You may be given a mathematical question followed by multiple choice answers. Be sure to read all the answers before choosing one; some may include clues to solve the problem. You may also be given questions involving simple arithmetic but that also include comparisons or applications.
  • Data sufficiency—You are presented with a question followed by two statements. You must determine whether either statement, both, or neither contains sufficient information to answer the question.

The math skills needed include algebra, percentages, calculation of interest, division, decimals, and rounding. You may be tested on speed problems and work rates. You should have knowledge of statistics including mean, median, mode, and standard deviation. You may be tested on probability.

You will also need knowledge of geometry, including calculations involving shapes.

Calculators are not allowed on this portion of the test.

Integrated Reasoning

This section has four types of questions, and you will receive at least one of each type.

  • Multi-source reasoning questions—You will see information in presented across several charts, tables, or graphs. You will have to examine all of this information to find the answers to the questions.
  • Table analysis—This type of question asks true/false questions based on evidence in a table.
  • Graphics interpretation—This multiple-choice type of question asks you to interpret information in a graph or other type of visual.
  • Two-part analysis—You may be given a short problem followed by a table with possible responses arranged by column. You will choose one response from each column to answer the question.

Integrated reasoning requires you to use both verbal (critical reasoning) and quantitative skills.

Analytical Writing

You will be asked to read a passage and critique the argument the passage uses. You should evaluate the argument based on the evidence within the passage only, using your logic and reasoning skills to assess strengths and weaknesses. You should use the traditional essay format of introduction, body, and conclusion. 

3. Review Sample Questions and Answers

Search online for sample GMAT questions and answers. You will find examples of both quantitative and verbal reasoning questions with explanations of how to reason through the answers at BusinessBecause, a partner website of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which designs and administers the test. The website also explains the general outline you should use when you complete the analytical writing section.

Study GMAT Prep Materials

GMAT study materials are published by several companies, including the GMAC. Prep materials are available both in book form and online. Some materials are free, but you will have to pay for most of them.

How Much Should I Study?

Don't try to take the GMAT without studying, warns John Gibson, Associate Director of Admissions, Purdue University Krannert School of Management. Once you've completed the test, your scores will be automatically sent to your chosen business schools, whether or not you're happy with them, he explains.

"The biggest mistake people make is they go in and take the test cold," he says.

People often underestimate the time they need in order to excel on the test. A survey conducted by GMAC of more than 4,000 MBA students demonstrated that the more hours a person studied for the GMAT, the higher their score tended to be.

According to the survey results, people who studied a total of 90 hours or more were more likely to achieve a score of over 700. Those who studied only 45 total hours reported scores of 500 or lower.

To make the most of your study time:

  • Start preparing as soon as you schedule your test.
  • Schedule your study time regularly over a period of three to six months.
  • Study all parts of the test, but spend more time on those sections you feel less confident about.
  • Use hands-on, interactive methods of studying.

Take Practice Quizzes and a Practice Exam

Studying the material is necessary, but it's not enough: you also need to practice taking the test.

GMAC offers a free mini-quiz that will give you a good idea of how well prepared you are and what you need to study. You can also download a sample of 90 questions from past exams and two free GMAT practice exams.

"It's the only place where you can get real questions from past exams," explains Marco De Novellis, senior editor for BusinessBecause and GMAC Media.

Consider Taking a GMAT Prep Course

Many private companies offer GMAT prep courses, both in person and online. The courses range greatly in price from about $200 to nearly $3,000, depending on the length and type of instruction provided. Course lengths range from two to six months. You can also arrange to work one-on-one with a tutor. 

4. Learn Your Strengths and Weaknesses, Then Fill in the Gaps

Your practice tests will reveal the areas of the test you do well on and those that need strengthening. Analyze why you missed certain questions, and try to fill knowledge gaps.

Your practice tests will also help you improve your test-taking strategies. The GMAT allows you to take the sections in the order you are most comfortable. You may want to start with the sections that are easiest for you, leaving more time for the more difficult sections.

5. Keep in Mind that the Test Can be Retaken

If you're unhappy with your GMAT score, it's not the end of your dreams. You can take it again. While your previous scores won't be erased, the business schools you apply to will consider your highest score in your application.

You must wait 16 days between exams if you take both in the same format (either online or at a testing center). If you switch formats, you don't have to wait. You can retake the GMAT five times within a 12-month period and eight times total in your lifetime.

However, keep in mind you pay each time you take the test. Think about whether a higher score will have a significant impact on your chances for admission.

What to Do Before Test Day

As soon as you've registered for the GMAT, create a study schedule. Procrastination can be your worst enemy. Your mindset can affect your success on the test, and if you don't feel prepared and confident, you won't do your best.

View the weeks before your test as a project that needs to be planned, managed, and implemented. Set aside a regular time and place for study and stick to it. Build in periodic evaluations, such as practice exams, to test your progress.

As soon as you've registered for the GMAT, create a study schedule. If you don't feel prepared and confident, you won't do your best.

Studying with a partner can also be beneficial. You can meet other people who are studying for the GMAT in online social media groups and forums. You can ask questions, get advice, and learn about the test experiences of others.

If you don't have a tutor or a study partner, you can make flashcards and ask a friend or relative to quiz you. They can help you memorize common formulas and other essential information.

Also, remember that the test is timed. You'll be under pressure on test day, so practice answering questions with a timer running. You can use any kind of timer or download a GMAT timer app. 

Don't overlook the writing analysis section of the test. If you've been out of school for a few years, your writing skills may be rusty. Review the basics of organizing an essay, writing a thesis statement, and supporting an argument with reason, evidence, and examples.

A Day in the Life of a GMAT Test-Taker

  • If you're taking the GMAT at a testing center, plan on arriving at least 30 minutes prior to your appointment to check in. You will need to bring photo ID, and you may be photographed and have your palm scanned. These are security measures used to prevent fraud or impersonation.
  • You will not be allowed to have any props in the testing room. You'll be asked to leave bags, coats, and personal items in a locker. You cannot bring a calculator or cell phone, and you will be asked to remove your watch. You can take only the locker key, a sweater, and eyeglasses to the testing station.
  • You'll be given scratch paper and a pen, and you can ask for more paper if you run out. Once you are seated at your testing station, you must stay there until the optional break, unless there is an emergency.
  • If you decide to take a break and you return after the eight-minute time limit, the extra minutes will be deducted from the next section of your test.
  • After you sign into the computer but before the test begins, you can choose up to five schools to receive your scores. This is an important decision because the scores will be send immediately after you finish the test, and you cannot make any changes or stop the report.
  • Next, you'll be asked to choose what order you want to take the sections.
  • While you're working through the test, an on-screen clock will let you know how much time you have remaining. You cannot go back and change answers.
  • When you've completed the test, you will immediately see your unofficial scores for everything but the analytical writing test. Your essay needs to be evaluated by a person before the score is final.

Do International Students Need to Take the GMAT?

International students must take the GMAT if the schools they are applying to require it. They can take it at a testing center in their home country, but the test will be in English.

GMAT test format, content, and length are the same wherever you take it. Local testing centers may differ in the type of identification they accept, but otherwise the rules are the same.

Although testing centers are located worldwide, there may be limited numbers of centers in some countries. You may need to travel some distance to a center. An online version of the test may be available to you.  

karen hanson

Written and reported by:

Karen S. Hanson

Contributing Writer

marco denovellis

With professional insight from:

Marco De Novellis

Senior Editor, BusinessBecause and GMAC Media

john gibson

John Gibson

Associate Director of Admissions, Purdue University Krannert School of Management

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