The 4 Most Important Components Of The MBA Admission Test

Preparing for the GMAT? Find the tips and tricks you need to prepare, and to beat the GMAT and gain admission to an MBA program.

September 29, 2021 , Modified on June 9, 2022

The 4 Most Important Components Of The MBA Admission Test

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Beating the GMAT & 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. Meet the Expert 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 SectionNumber of QuestionsQuestion TypesTiming Allotment
Analytical Writing Assessment1 TopicAnalysis of Argument30 Minutes
Integrated Reasoning12 QuestionsMulti-Source Reasoning
Graphics Interpretation
Two-Part Analysis
Table Analysis
30 Minutes
Quantitative37 QuestionsData Sufficiency
Problem Solving
75 Minutes
Verbal41 QuestionsReading Comprehension
Critical Reasoning
Sentence Correction
75 Minutes
Total Exam Times3 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:

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. 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. 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. 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.

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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:

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:

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. 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. 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:

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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:

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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?

A Study Timeline for the GMAT

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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

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:

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.

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