Beating the GMAT Tips & Resources for Getting into Your Dream MBA Program

The GMAT, or Graduate Management Admission Test, provides MBA programs with a crucial metric “to predict program performance.” In this guide, we’ll unpack the distinct challenges of each of the four exam components. We’ll then detail the most effective ways to prepare for them, based on expert advice and documentation from test-prep coaches and GMAC itself. By scrutinizing the GMAT’s components, identifying personal weaknesses, and then applying targeted test-taking strategies, anyone can beat the GMAT and gain admission to an MBA program.

49%

of GMAT test takers report spending at least 51 hours preparing for the exam.

Breaking Down the GMAT

The GMAT contains four distinct sections. The core of the exam, which yields a score of 200 to 800, is comprised of the verbal and math (or quantitative) sections. These sections are broken down by subject matter and question types below. In addition, the GMAT includes one essay question, an analytical writing assessment that is graded on a scale of one to six. The final and newest component combines quantitative math skills with verbal comprehension under the rubric of “integrated reasoning.”

The average combined verbal/quantitative score during the 2012-2013 academic year was 546 out of a possible 800.

GMAT Test Section Number of Questions Question Types Timing Allotment
Analytical Writing Assessment 1 Topic Analysis of Argument 30 Minutes
Integrated Reasoning 12 Questions Multi-Source Reasoning
Graphics Interpretation
Two-Part Analysis
Table Analysis
30 Minutes
Quantitative 37 Questions Data Sufficiency
Problem Solving
75 Minutes
Verbal 41 Questions Reading Comprehension
Critical Reasoning
Sentence Correction
75 Minutes
Total Exam Times 3 hours, 30 minutes

GMAT: Analytical Writing Assessment

The first hurdle in the GMAT is the essay section, formally known as the analytical writing assessment (AWA), which is assigned a point value from one to six. Different MBA programs assign varying weights to the AWA score, and in terms of overall time commitment it’s generally considered the least important part of the exam to study for. The purpose of the AWA is to test one’s ability to think critically about a statement and then logically articulate the strengths and weaknesses of that statement. MBA admissions staff use AWA scores to gauge an applicant’s basic writing and reasoning skills.

Dennis Yim, Associate Director of Pre-Business and Pre-Graduate Programs at Kaplan Test Prep, offers the following advice on how to approach the AWA essay:

1 Remain Objective

When it comes to the argument-based essay, one of the biggest tips we give is to remind students to remain objective. In other words, the job is not to judge the argument, or to decide whether it’s a good or bad argument. It’s the student’s job to be able to break down the argument, and objectively show the different components the author has used to construct the argument. In other words, it’s your thoughts or your reactions that matter; it’s what are the assumptions that the author it using.

2 Find the Flaws

The final goal is to find a way to show how the argument in question is incomplete. So, based on the information provided, we can’t determine certain things because we need more information of a specific kind in order to do so.

3 Organization is Key

It’s not a matter of prose or being a great writer. It’s about how well you organize your essay. Think of it as an email to a very busy boss. They won’t have time to sift through everything. You want to be as direct and concise as possible, and get your information across clearly and logically. You also want to proofread the way you would check over an email to a busy boss. You wouldn’t want that email to be rife with errors. A lack of care in structuring sentences, and leaving out words, can impact the clarity of your argument.

4 Key Words

The essay is graded by an person and by a computer. So, you should pay attention to keywords. Imagine you’re giving a friend directions on how to get to your home, you want to give clear indicators of what they should expect and how it all ties back to the final destination. You want to be able to show the grader that you fully understand how the argument is laid out by restating it in your own words, and then you should point out what evidence would strengthen and what evidence would weaken the argument, followed by an overview of your points as a conclusion.

GMAT: Integrated Reasoning

The integrated reasoning (IR) section, which is assigned a score between one and eight points, was added in 2012 and is now considered to be the most complex part of the exam. There are four types of IR questions, all of which measure verbal and quantitative skills (i.e., word problems). They may involve:

  • Synthesizing information presented in graphics, text and numbers
  • Evaluating information from different sources
  • Organizing information to see relationships and to solve multiple, interrelated problems
  • Combining and manipulating information from multiple sources to solve complex problems

For example, a typical IR question might have a graph with two sets of variables, followed by three questions asking for an interpretation of the data. To get credit, the test taker must answer all three questions. Moreover, all parts of the question must be answered before moving on to the next one; once a question is fully answered, the test taker cannot go back.

Most MBA admissions offices do not weight the IR section of the GMAT as heavily as the combined math/verbal score. However, it is seen as a useful gauge of an applicant’s complex thinking skills and aptitude for data management and analysis. Here are some tips from Yim:

1 Don’t Be Afraid

Timing is the main thing that people tend to be freaked out about. The first time students take a practice test, it’s pretty common for them to be intimidated by the time constraints on this section of the exam. They’re presented with what looks like a lot of data, and it can seem like a lot to do in the time you’re given.

2 Don’t Be a GMAT Gladiator

Don’t go in with the mentality that it’s a fight to the death with each question. If you have the mindset that you have to get every question right, it can be very challenging, both from a time-management point of view, and from a psychological standpoint. The IR section is not adaptive, like the verbal and quantitative sections. So, it’s important to prioritize on this section in a way that allows you to get to all of the questions before the time runs out.

3 Know the Kinds of Questions

The reason you’re prepping is to avoid surprises. So you want to know how to work through the information in the questions and figure out what they are asking you for. That’s how you navigate the test in an effective and efficient way. We teach four core skills for mastering the test: critical thinking; pattern recognition; paraphrasing; and, most importantly, attention to the right detail. Many times students will get the right answer to the wrong question, and that comes from reading the question wrong and missing the right details. That’s particularly true on IR questions.

GMAT: Quantitative Reasoning

After getting past the essay and integrated reasoning sections of the GMAT, some people may breathe a small sigh of relief to be moving into more familiar test-taking grounds, which is not to imply that the remainder of the GMAT is a breeze. The quantitative section involves answering 37 multiple choice questions in just 75 minutes. Roughly two-thirds of those questions fall under the problem solving (PS) designation, which involves applying basic math to problems. Preparing for this part of the quantitative section simply requires brushing up on algebra, geometry, fractions, and the like.

The remaining third of the quantitative section presents data sufficiency (DS) questions, which demand careful reading and require the test taker to determine whether or not the information provided in two statements is enough to draw a conclusion. Through this test, admissions staff are looking for students who can demonstrate not just an understanding of basic math, but also higher-level interpretive skills. To ace the qualitative reasoning component, experts recommend the following:

1 It’s Not Just Math

The GMAT is a decision-making test from beginning to end. Yes, you need to know some math, but math is only the medium for the questions. You should review the math, but it’s the critical thinking that you need to unleash to truly beat this section.

2 Master the Fundamentals

The GMAT does require some review of math for students who haven’t taken a math class in some time. Reviewing the fundamentals is important and shouldn’t be taken for granted. You have to get back in the game in terms of math skills.

3 Understand the Goal of the Question

The questions, especially the data sufficiency question, take advantage of your instinct to want to calculate an exact answer. That a lot of what math has been about for students in the past, and that can hurt you in terms of time. Many of the questions are not designed to be completed in terms of an exact answer in the time allotted. Instead, you just need to determine whether or not you could come to an exact answer given the information provided.

4 Decode the Question

A huge part of the challenge of the test is being able to figure out what you’re really being asked to do. It may appear to be a difficult word problem, but if you take a few moments to decode the question and avoid jumping to conclusions, you’ll often realize that the information you need to get the right answer is right there.

5 Have Options

There are often two or more ways to get the right answer to a particular questions. It helps to learn how to be flexible in your thinking so that you can figure out the most efficient way to get the right answer.

6 Don’t Be Thrown off by the Difficulty of a Question

You have to remember that the GMAT is a computer-adaptive test, and that the questions will get harder as you get more of the easier questions right. The idea that you’re going to get every question right can be very damaging to your psyche and to your timing on the exam. Because the questions are getting harder, there probably will be a point where you get one questions right, one question wrong, and then another question right.

GMAT: Verbal

The verbal section has 41 questions broken down into three types. Reading comprehension (RC) questions test candidates’ ability to understand, interpret and draw conclusions from a short passage of text. Sentence correction (SC) questions require the use of grammar rules and common usage to replace a word or phrase in a sentence. And critical reasoning (CR) questions present word-logic problems that involve evaluating the evidence and conclusions presented in a short passage.

Because of the targeted nature of the GMAT, the verbal section is not aimed at assessing overall English language proficiency or vocabulary. Its primary objective is instead to measure analytical reading skills. As one test-prep expert pointed out only half-jokingly, the best way to prepare for the verbal section is to read The New Yorker cover to cover for two months. Yim offers a list of tips for the verbal section:

1 Silence Your Inner Editor

On sentence correction questions, which are the most prevalent type in verbal the danger is letting your inner editor dictate your answers. You’ll want to correct the sentences in a way that fits your own style, but that may not be the right answer. That can be frustrating. It’s important to stay away from a subjective approach. Your ear can be helpful, but if you only rely on how the answers sound, that will not be helpful.

2 Find the Error-Free Answer

You have to recognize that there are a few common types of errors that come up over and over again in sentence correction questions. You can learn to recognize those kinds of errors and then, instead of picking the answer that sounds the best, you pick the answer that is error free. A savvy GMAT test-taker reads the questions vertically, not horizontally, and look for the error that the question is testing for.

3 Don’t Overlook the Reading Comp

It’s the most overlooked section on the GMAT because students aren’t intimated by these questions and because they’ve seen these kinds of questions before on tests. The verbal section is last, and these questions can have passages that are four or five paragraphs long, so you have to be psychologically ready.

4 Find the Author’s Purpose

The game plan for reading comprehension questions is to understand the author’s main purpose. That will help you find the right answers efficiently. If you’re reading for detail, you’re likely to get bogged down. And there is a good chance that those details won’t help answer the questions.

5 Don’t Jump To An Answer

Don not expect to read the answer choices and pick the one that sounds the best. That is so dangerous. The GMAT tries to make wrong answers sound correct, and correct answer sound a little bit worse. You can’t let the GMAT put words or thoughts in your head. You should independently come to a conclusion and then search for an answer choice that matches that.

6 Find the Flaw

In order for the test to be fair, there is one correct answer to each question, and four clearly flawed answers. The key is to find see the flaws, not to look for the answer that calls out to you.

Increasing Your GMAT Score

The GMAT is given year-round, six days a week, at testing centers located across the country. It can be taken up to five times a year by individuals, but only once every 31 days. Most people would prefer to just take it once, however, so how can you put yourself in the best position to maximize your score on your first try?

  • Get to know the test.

    Take one of the free practice tests offered by GMAC online to get a sense of how it feels to take the GMAT, not just in terms of the questions themselves, but also in regards to how the questions appear on screen. Then, get your hands on an “Official Guide for GMAT Review” and use the practice questions in each section to determine your strengths and weaknesses.

  • Understand the algorithm.

    Unlike a linear test with set questions in a set order, the GMAT is a computer adaptive test (CAT). That means that the questions you’re presented with during an actual test are not predetermined but are instead selected by an algorithm that ranks each question by degree of difficulty and then chooses subsequent questions based on how well you did on previous questions. Scoring is based on both the number of questions answered correctly and the degree of difficulty of those questions. A good strategy is to learn through practice exams to recognize easier questions and make sure you get them right. An incorrect answer to an easy question hurts your score more than answering a difficult question wrong.

  • Get your timing right.

    Not leaving enough time to finish a section of the GMAT creates a major scoring disadvantage. The GMAT’s adaptive algorithm penalizes for consecutive wrong answers, and if you leave multiple questions unanswered at the end of the test, they will be, by definition, consecutive wrong answers.

  • Use practice tests judiciously.

    One somewhat counterintuitive piece of advice that test-prep gurus tend to agree on is that taking too many practice exams is an inefficient study method. GMAC offers two free practice tests and an additional two practice tests for $49.99. Since official GMAT materials are regarded as the best preparatory tests, they should be deployed judiciously. The key to mastering the GMAT is to identify your strengths and weaknesses, and then to focus on improving in problem areas. That’s achieved through the use of targeted practice questions rather than full exams.

  • Replicate actual testing conditions.

    Do your best to take practice tests under the same conditions and restrictions that will be in place when you take the actual test. That means sitting at a desk without a calculator, protractor or notebook. You can, however, use scratch paper to take notes, and you should get used to doing so. Time the test, including the optional five-minute breaks, which test-prep coaches suggest that you use to stretch and clear your head. This is also when you’ll have a chance to use the bathroom, so take advantage of that opportunity. The more comfortable you are with actual testing conditions, the better you’ll handle the little things on the day of the test.

  • Don’t cram.

    Because the GMAT tests less for specific knowledge than for critical thinking ability, it’s important to be in good thinking shape. Cramming for the GMAT by doing practice questions for hours on end in the days leading up to the exam tends to be less helpful, according to experts, than getting a full eight hours of sleep every night, eating well and keeping your mind clear and sharp through relaxation methods or regular physical activity.

A Study Timeline for the GMAT

Identify potential MBA programs.

Finding the schools that seem right for your needs will give you a sense of what GMAT score you’ll need to shoot for to gain admission. Career counselors suggest that you begin this a year or more in advance, ideally in March.

Study for the test.

Most test-prep counselors recommend studying two to four hours a day for two to four months, depending on your initial practice test scores. Get your hands on the most recent edition of the “Official Guide for GMAT Review.” GMAC also publishes individual guides to the verbal and quantitative sections and has online resources targeting specific exam components.

Register for the GMAT.

Once you’ve chosen the MBA programs you’re applying to and have settled into a study routine, you should register to take the test online at MBA.com. Assuming you began your prep in March, you should be ready to take the exam by June or July. Locate the nearest testing center, and plan to make a test run to the location so you won’t be late.

Take the test.

Get to the testing center early, locate the bathroom and settle in. At the end of the test, you’ll be given the option to view your verbal and quantitative scores or delete your entire test. If you delete your scores, they will not be reported, but you also won’t know how you did. Most test-prep counselors recommend checking the scores regardless of how you feel you have done.

Take a GMAT practice test.

Gauge your preparedness for the GMAT by taking one of the free official practice tests available through GMAC. This will help you set reasonable goals for what you can score on the actual test and provide you with a good sense of what exam components and question types you should focus on.

Take a second GMAT practice test.

Monitory your progress by taking the second GMAT practice exam provided by GMAC in a controlled, timed environment that mimics test-taking conditions. Depending on the results, you may consider enrolling in a GMAT test-prep class or supplementing your GMAT studies with additional materials.

Prepare mentally and physically.

The GMAT is designed to measure how well you think and perform under pressure. It’s a three-and-a-half-hour marathon, so experts recommend getting a full eight hours of sleep before the exam and staying away from junk food, alcohol and any substances that may impair your mental function. Light physical activity and relaxation exercises are also recommended.

GMAT Quick Facts

1,300 students took the GMAT in 1954, the first year it was offered.

During the 2012-2013 academic year, 238,356 GMAT exams were administered, with 675,733 score reports sent to nearly 5,600 graduate-level management programs around the world.

The GMAT is administered in 600 locations in 114 countries around the world.

The top business schools generally require a combined verbal/quantitative score of at least 600, with the most elite MBA programs setting the bar at around 700.

Take Free Practice GMAT Tests

The single best thing a person can do to prepare for the GMAT is to take at least one full practice exam. Even top-notch undergraduate students with a 4.0 GPA and excellent math, verbal and writing skills don’t know how they are going to perform on the GMAT until they’ve taken it. And for those who have been out of school for a while, a practice exam is the best way to determine the areas to focus on. You can find practice exams through the following resources:

  • Graduate Management Admission Council

    There are two free practice tests available through GMAC as well as two additional practice exams that can be purchased as part of the GMATPrep Exam Pack for $50.

  • Manhattan Prep

    This private test prep company offers one free GMAT practice exam and a package of six online computer-adaptive GMAT practice tests for $49.

  • Princeton Review

    The Princeton Review offers one online GMAT practice exam free of charge.

  • Veritas Prep

    This private test prep company offers one free GMAT practice exam as well as seven additional computer-adaptive GMAT practice exams for $49.

Additional GMAT Resources

Along with private test prep companies that offer classes and online tutorials, many MBA programs themselves have online resources that can be helpful. Below are some places where you can find more information on how to beat the GMAT.

  • Beat the GMAT

    advertises itself as “the MBA social network” and has a free downloadable “GMAT Avengers Guide” featuring tips and strategies for taking the exam.

  • The Economist

    has a “GMAT tutor blog” devoted to discussions of topics related to preparing for the GMAT exam.

  • GMAT Club

    is a free online forum dedicated to discussions about the GMAT and MBA programs.

  • GMAT Free

    is, as advertised, a free online resource that offers materials to those preparing to take the exam.

  • Manhattan Prep

    has workshops, boot camps, private tutoring and an array of informative essays and advice columns on taking the GMAT.

  • MBA.com

    is the official GMAC site for the GMAT exam, and it contains registration information, practice tests and questions, and other resources.

  • Princeton Review

    is a private test prep company that offers a range of workshops, tutorials and classes for the GMAT exam.

  • Quora.com

    is a crowdsourced site with a number of threads related to optimizing GMAT performance.

  • Test Prep Unlimited

    is a private test prep company that has an entire page devoted to debunking GMAT myths. It also has classes and other resources for those preparing to take the GMAT exam.

  • Veritas Prep

    is a private test prep company that offers courses, a free GMAT webinar, an iPhone app for GMAT practice questions, and other assets for test takers.