Welcome! This article explains how the GMAT works, what the GMAT tests, and what is considered a “good” score.
The Graduate Management Admission Test, better known as the GMAT®, is a standardized test used in the admissions process for graduate management education (GME) programs, including MBAs and other specialized Master’s and PhD programs. The exam measures certain skills that GME programs care about, most notably Executive Reasoning skills—including how well you make decisions and manage scarce resources. It does not test any specific business knowledge.
When is the GMAT given?
You can take the GMAT year-round, nearly any day of the week. As of June 2019, you can take the test a maximum of 5 times in any rolling 12-month period and a maximum of 8 times in your life. You’re required to wait 16 days between tests. Check out the official website for the GMAT and create a free account; you’ll get access to some free practice problems and two free practice tests. (You can also see whether any of the test details have changed since we wrote this article.)
Speaking of free resources, if you set up a free account on Manhattan Prep’s site, you’ll get access to our (free) GMAT Starter Kit study syllabus. You can also take a look at our upcoming free events (the trial classes listed are the first sessions of our Complete Course classes—basically, you can sit in for free on the first session of any class).
The exam is given on a computer in a dedicated testing center and is known as a “CAT.” Our Starter Kit comes with a free practice CAT, along with other study resources.
What is a CAT?
A CAT is a computer-adaptive test: The test literally adapts itself to you while you’re taking it. Two of the four sections on the GMAT, the Quantitative and Verbal sections, are adaptive. Each of these two sections begins with a random, approximately medium-level question. The computer chooses each subsequent question based upon your collective performance to that point in the section.
The practical implications are important. First, every test taker will take a different exam with a different mix of questions. The result? No matter how well you’re doing, the test feels hard, since the test can just keep tossing harder questions at you until it finds your limit. In school, when you were super prepared, the test felt almost easy. The GMAT is never going to feel easy since, the better you do, the harder the test is—literally!
Second, the scoring is pretty peculiar; it’s important to understand certain things about how the scoring works so that you know how to make decisions that will help to maximize your score.
How is the GMAT scored?
Tests you took in school were generally scored based on the percentage of questions answered correctly: The more you got right, the higher the score you received. As a result, you have been trained to take your time and try to get everything right when you take a test. This general strategy does not work on computer-adaptive sections of the GMAT because, strangely enough, the quant and verbal scores are not based on the percentage of questions answered correctly. On the GMAT, most people answer similar percentages of questions correctly, typically in the 50% to 70% range (even at higher scoring levels!).
Wait…If test-takers all get a similar percentage correct, how does the GMAT distinguish among different performance levels? You can think of the GMAT as a test that searches for each person’s “60% level,” or the difficulty range in which the person is able to answer approximately 60% of the questions correctly. (This is not exactly what happens, but it’s a useful analogy.) Your score will be determined by the level of questions that you are able to earn—the higher your “60% level,” the higher your score.
Once you know that, your entire strategy for approaching this test changes. You’re literally not trying to get everything right. You need to be able to distinguish between questions that are good “investment” opportunities for you (the ones you’re more likely to get right in a reasonable amount of time) and questions that are bad opportunities, so that you can guess quickly on the bad ones. That saves you time and mental energy to spend on the better opportunities.
Remember when we said earlier that the test writers are primarily interested in knowing how good you are at making decisions and managing scarce resources? (That’s the second time I’ve linked to that same article. Go read it!) In other words, this test structure makes complete sense—the GMAT is testing your business-reasoning skills!
The above discussion is just an introduction to how the GMAT scoring works; before you take the real test, you’ll want to dig more deeply into how the scoring works and what implications that has for how you spend your time and mental energy during the exam.
How long is the GMAT?
The test-center GMAT is just over 3 hours long and is actually closer to 3.5 hours if you take the optional breaks (hint: take the optional breaks!). The GMAT Online is about 40 minutes shorter because it skips the essay section.
What is tested on the GMAT?
The GMAT consists of four* separate sections, each with its own score. (*As mentioned, the GMAT Online drops the essay section.) The test-center exam is given in one of three orders—your choice. Here are the four types of sections:
The scores for the last two sections, Quant and Verbal, are also combined into a Total score on a 200 (low) to 800 (high) scale. This is the score most people care about when taking the GMAT (since this is the score that the schools care most about!).
Here are the three orders in which you can choose to take the test-center exam:
Since the Q and V sections are considered more important, most people choose either order 2 or order 3. That way you can maximize your performance on the more important sections while your brain is still fresh. According to GMAC, the organization that make the GMAT, about half of all test-takers choose to start with Quant and about a third choose to start with Verbal.
The GMAT Online is always given in the order Quant–Verbal–IR.
During the Quant section, you’ll answer 31 math questions (in 62 minutes), covering topics from algebra, geometry, statistics, and other areas. Quant questions come in two flavors, Problem Solving (PS) and Data Sufficiency (DS).
PS problems look like any standard multiple-choice math problem you’ve ever seen. DS problems, on the other hand, are unique to the GMAT; they’re a sort of cross between math and logic. Most people find them really…odd at first, but they have a great built-in feature: You don’t actually have to do the full math in order to solve! As you gain experience, you’ll be able to take advantage of the “don’t need to do all the math” feature to save yourself time and mental effort.
During the Verbal section, you’ll answer 36 questions in 65 minutes and you’ll see three different kinds of questions. Sentence Correction is the only type that requires you to bring in outside knowledge. On SC questions, you’ll look for the “best” sentence: the choice that is grammatically correct and has a clear, logical meaning.
Critical Reasoning questions will present you with some type of argument (about 2 to 5 sentences in length, typically) and ask you to analyze that argument in some way. You might be asked to find an assumption, draw an inference, identify a new piece of information that strengthens or weakens the argument, and so on.
Reading Comprehension will look familiar to you if you’ve ever taken any kind of standardized test before. First, you’ll read a passage (typically about 2 to 4 paragraphs long) and then you’ll answer 3 or 4 questions, all about that same passage. You might be asked to find the main idea of the passage. You can also be asked about the details—what did the passage say, why did the passage say a certain thing, what can you infer about something the passage said, and so on.
The Integrated Reasoning (IR) section was added to the GMAT in 2012. It covers both math and verbal topics and most questions mix both skills in just the one problem. IR questions tend to provide a decent amount of extraneous information (that is, information that you don’t need to use in order to answer the question); this section is testing your ability to wade through a bunch of data and identify the relevant information. (Kind of like real life!)
The four question types are unique to the GMAT and will take some effort to get used to—but you can do it! If your job involves any kind of research, data analysis, or visual displays of information, then you may even find that some parts of the IR section actually feel more comfortable for you than some of the material in the Quant or Verbal sections of the exam.
The test will give you an argument to analyze—it will closely resemble a Critical Reasoning arguments—and you will have 30 minutes to compose an essay response. You do have to type your essay and you will not have access to a spell checker or grammar checker. (Gulp.) You can have a few typos / minor errors; the test makers make some allowances for the fact that you’re writing an impromptu, timed essay.
How long are GMAT scores valid?
GMAT scores are valid for 5 years from the date of the test; after that, the score will drop off of your record. If you take a test but cancel your scores, your official record (the one that goes to schools) will not include any notice that you sat for that test.
You can choose to keep or cancel a test at the testing center (after you see what your scores are). If you keep your scores at the center, once you leave, you then have three days to change your mind; in that timeframe, you can cancel your scores for a fee. If you cancel your scores at the center, you can later reinstate them—again for a fee—as long as the scores are still valid (that is, for 5 years).
What is a good GMAT score?
Business schools care most about the Total score on the 200-800 scale, as well as the Quant and Verbal subscores that accompany the Total score. Some schools have also started to pay closer attention to IR scores—though, since this section is fairly new, it’s not yet as important as Q and V.
The mean Total score for the entire pool of test takers is about a 560. Most business schools publish data on the GMAT scores of the students they’ve admitted, often including the median or average score as well as the scoring range of the admitted students (some schools report only the “middle 80%” scoring range, the range that covers the middle 80% of admitted students).
Do some research: Look at the websites of the schools to which you’re thinking of applying to see what their GMAT numbers are. That will give you a sense of the kind of score you should aim to get in order to be a competitive applicant for that school.
The Quant and Verbal sections are each scored on a scale of 6 to 51. Your scores on these two sections also combine to give you your Total (3-digit) score. (The IR and Essay sections are scored separately.)
Although the two subscores use the same numbers (6 to 51), the scores don’t mean the same thing. For example, as of June 2019, a Verbal section score of 45 is rated the 99th percentile—that is, only 1% of test-takers score a 45+ on the Verbal section of the GMAT. On the quant section, by contrast, the top score of 51 is the 96th percentile, so 4% of test-takers earn a 51 on quant. Just note this difference when you’re setting goals for yourself—a score of 40+ is excellent on verbal but not especially impressive on quant. Take that into account when setting goals for yourself.
At the top 10 U.S. schools, mean 3-digit Total scores are above 700 (and the very top ones are in the 730 to 740 range). The top schools typically consider a quant score of 45 or higher to be good enough, as well as a verbal score of 35 or higher. But! If you hit exactly Q45 and V35, your overall score would be only about a 650. To get a 700+ kind of score, you’ll need to score higher than those “baselines” in at least one of the two sub-sections (Q or V).
On the IR section, the mean score is between 4 and 5 (the full scale is 1 to 8). For more competitive schools, try to beat the mean (5+). If you want to go into management consulting or investment banking with a top firm, aim for a 7 or 8.
In short, a “good” score is whatever will look good to the particular schools you want to attend. If your Total GMAT score is at or above a particular school’s mean score, then your score is a plus on your application—but as long as you are within the school’s “middle 80%” range, your GMAT score is probably good enough. Once your score is good enough, schools are going to look at the rest of your application to make the decision.
Note: All data points and details regarding the official exam are valid as of June 2019.
Stacey Koprince is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Montreal, Canada and Los Angeles, California. Stacey has been teaching the GMAT, EA, GRE, and LSAT for more than 15 years and is one of the most well-known instructors in the industry. Stacey loves to teach and is absolutely fascinated by standardized tests.