What is the GMAT? What test prep companies don’t want you to know

What the GMAT is not

It’s important to first remember that the GMAT is not an IQ test. It is extremely common that prospective candidates seem to be convinced that the GMAT is an IQ test. Even after they are presented with the argument against that, they are likely to maintain some aspect of this belief especially after they have personalized performance on the test. In other words, they link their self-worth and esteem to doing well on the test. That is extremely dangerous because it will prevent you from doing what you need to do to achieve a great score.

Even though the distribution of scores on the GMAT falls within a typical distribution of human characteristics, it should not be considered an IQ test because it is a very learnable test. Many people have successfully improved their score by large margins. So, do not be discouraged by a low score. It is more reflective of your current reasoning skills, which can be improved.

What the GMAT is

In fact, GMAC, the organization that makes and administers the test, is very open about what the GMAT is:
A high order thinking test.
In other words, it measures your skill in understanding problems and making inference. It’s important to remember this during your prep phase. You should prioritize learning to understand over learning to solve. There is a subtle difference between the two. Understanding this subtlety is the difference between improving and not improving.


Why do business schools need it?

It is a benchmark. Business schools receive thousands of applications from applicants of different educational backgrounds. The GMAT provides a standardized measure that business schools use to perform a primary evaluation of all the candidates. The GMAT score indicates how well you can reason and therefore provides a measure of your preparedness to do the homework, understand business cases and provide good feedback to the arguments in class in comparison to other candidates.

A score of 600 will tell them that you can reason about as well as half the population.
A score of 700 will tell them that you can reason better than 90% of the population. (Of course, never forget that this reasoning skill is something you can work on improving).

The GMAC states four things that the GMAT measures:

1. Quantitative reasoning

The ability to reason using numbers. For example, determining which of two quantities is greater, where an integer lies on the number line, what proportion is one quantity of another, etc. More interestingly, whether or not questions can be answered. This is the data sufficiency question type and is a unique test question type in the GMAT.

2. Critical thinking

The ability to understand facts and evidence, and determine how well they are presented or put together to make a claim or conclusion.

3. Argument evaluation

What is an argument? Can you naturally and confidently identify the different parts of an argument. You may not explicitly know that an argument consists of a premise, assumption and a conclusion but you are likely to have participated in a debate during which you attempt to defeat your opponent’s claims by weakening any evidence that they use. Critical reasoning involves the same skills, but it helps to be very explicit in your analysis of arguments on the GMAT.

4. Express complex ideas

The ability to express complex ideas is tested in the analytical writing assessment and sentence correction questions. Difficult sentence correction questions (explained in more detail below), often require your ability to decide what the intended meaning of the sentence is and to choose the expressions that effectively achieve that.

Sections on the GMAT test

GMAT test sections

1. Problem solving

As the name suggests, you have to solve a problem and determine the solution. You are asked a question and presented with 5 answer choices to choose from. Here’s an example:

A team of 4 is to be created from a group of 4 women and 3 men, such that there are 2 women and 2 men. How many different teams can be made?
a. 15
b. 16
c. 18
d. 20
e. 24

2. Data sufficiency

This is the more interesting question type in the quant section. You are presented with a question along with certain facts, and two pieces of evidence that are true. Your task is to determine whether the problem can be solved using either statement alone or together. Tricky right? Here’s an example:

GMAT data sufficiency

In this case, we can only determine whether x + 1 is even if we use both statements together. Statement (1) is not sufficient because we still don’t know if x is an integer. Notice how the question did not state that x + 1 is an integer. Do not assume what’s not explicitly stated or cannot be inferred. Statement (2) is also not sufficient because it leaves two possibilities.

The answer to the above question is that both statements must be used together to determine whether or not x + 1 is even. Notice that the answer needs to be conclusive. In this case for example, we need the answer to be a ‘yes’ 100% of the time or a ‘no’ 100% of the time. Even if the answer to this question were a conclusive ‘no’, it would still be answerable.

This is a very unique question type that you only see on the GMAT. The philosophy behind data sufficiency addresses the ability to define the boundaries of a problem and determine what resources are required to solve it and whether they are available. The relevance to making business decisions is obvious.

As an unusual question format to many students, data sufficiency is at first challenging, and you may be intimidated by it. But you have to realize that data sufficiency presents two opportunities:

1. You only need to determine whether the problem can be solved. This saves you time on the test
2. More importantly, it’s a learning tool that will improve your ability in developing the mindset, discipline and skill to define boundaries of problems. This is extremely valuable in life and a professional work environment.

Even though many test takers struggle with data sufficiency, they eventually realize that it’s ‘fun’ (kind of like a puzzle), and come to prefer it to problem solving.


1. Sentence correction

You are presented with a sentence part of or all of which is underlined. The goal is to decide whether the sentence contains no errors and hence choose answer choice A, which repeats the underlined part, or choose one of the remaining answer choices that you think is the correct format of the underlined portion of the sentence.

Now you may ask yourself why does a business school care that I have great grammar?
As a business professional you must be able to express yourself clearly and correctly. It’s extremely unprofessional if an email or presentation you give is full of grammatical errors. You don’t want to give a bad impression through incoherent communication. In the context of business or management, little details count, and a polished writing style creates a great first impression.

Of course, there is a more interesting explanation. Sentence correction is not only about ‘grammar’. The GMAC states that the GMAT tests your ability to understand and express complex ideas. In many difficult sentence correction questions, the challenge is to first understand the intended meaning of a sentence. Often, you have to think carefully about what the sentence should be expressing. That’s tough and is related to an appreciation of rhetorical construction, sentence structure, and how the elements of a sentence act together to express the intended idea.

Check out this answer explanation to question 702 (GMAT official guide 2018), which illustrates how you should approach sentence correction questions.

You can therefore think of sentence correction as half grammar and half logic. A native speaker may have an early advantage, but that gap can be closed if you learn the basic grammar and practice. You could argue that native speakers will have an advantage in idiomatic expressions. This is true, but the GMAT tests relatively few idioms, which you can learn, and rarely tests unusual idioms. One difficult idiom question will not change your score so do not develop an obsession to learn all the possible idioms. Practice through context using the official guide questions.

2. Critical reasoning

In here you are required to analyse a relatively short paragraph and answer one question that tests your understanding of the paragraph. Generally, you are presented with either an argument or a set of facts describing a situation – for example the details of a plan to improve employee efficiency.
If the paragraph is an argument
The question will test your grasp of the argument, and will explicitly ask you to either weaken, strengthen, or evaluate the argument, or find the assumption.

If the paragraph is a specific situation or plan
You will be asked to evaluate the likelihood of the plan’s success or failure, or to determine what is needed to test the soundness of the plan.

The relevance of this question type to business school is clear. During classes, projects, assignments and preparation of business cases, your effectiveness in contributing to the program largely rests on the soundness of your reasoning. Working on improving your critical thinking skills is an excellent opportunity to also prepare yourself for business school.

3. Reading comprehension

Reading comprehension is a core skill tested on the verbal section of the GMAT, but is also a question type of its own. Questions consist of a relatively long text (from 1 to 4 paragraphs), and 3 to 5 questions.
The emphasis must be made here: you will need a longer time to prepare for the GMAT if you are not strong in reading comprehension. There is no way around it. A practice test will give you an idea of how much time you need to prepare (more on this later).


This reflects the GMAC’s commitment to making a more relevant test to business schools by adding this new section that combines both Quant and Verbal questions (perhaps also as a competitive push against the GRE).
The objective is to measure your skill in combining different pieces and formats of information consisting of numbers, charts, instructions and graphs, to make certain inferences. Notice my emphasis on inference (the GMAT is primarily about inference).

The relevance of this question type to business is clear. This section is graded on a scale of 1 to 8, but does NOT count towards your total score. IR is relatively new (a few years only) and it may be that more tester data is required before the scoring can be statistically significant.


You will be presented with a statement, for example a CEO’s proposal for increasing sales, and you are required to provide an assessment of its soundness. Notice here that you do not have to state your opinion, but present your analysis of the statement given in the form of an essay. The essay is scored on a scale of 1 to 6 and, like the IR, does not count towards your total score.

How is your GMAT score calculated?

The GMAT is scored on a scale of 200 to 800 and the mean score is around 550. The scoring algorithm is adaptive. This means that questions are presented based on how you answer previous questions. The better you do the more difficult questions become (usually). Your score is calculated based on the number of questions you answer correctly and their difficulty rating. That’s as far as you should go in thinking about the algorithm, which is extremely effective and consistent in determining your score. There are many myths surrounding the algorithm, and on occasion candidates obsess over the algorithm and how to game it. This is very counter-productive and a waste of your time.

The main myth is that the first 10 questions are the most important and that you must allow extra time for them. I strongly advise against that because the first 10 questions provide only an initial estimate, which is confirmed and verified during the remainder of the section. So, if you spend too much time in the beginning, you will not have enough time left to maintain the level you achieved in the beginning, if at all. The official advice is to manage your time well and not spend too much time on a single question. This is excellent advice that has time and time again proven true. It is a very simple and effective habit yet ironically many fail because they cannot manage their time well.

GMAT algorithm

What is a good score?

The answer is both quantitative and qualitative. Because it’s a nice round number, 700 is a common target score for test takers and it would mean that you scored better than about 90% of the test takers. So, you can consider that 700 is a ‘good’ score, but only generally. GMAT scores are presented on a percentile range that indicates how you performed compared to the rest of the candidates.

What a good score is however depends on your objectives. Business schools regularly publish the average GMAT scores of their incoming class and a good score therefore depends on the average GMAT scores of the school you want to attend. If the average score for the school you wish to attend is 720, then a ‘good’ score is within that vicinity. Remember that the GMAT is not the only criteria in your application. If you have a meaningful work experience and great leadership experience then a lower than average GMAT score will still be ‘good’ enough.

Why is it so hard to do well on the GMAT?

1. Self-selecting international pool

This is unlike the SAT or high school testing that you are forced to do to enter college or university. GMAT is kind of optional because you choose to go to business school. You can assume therefore that the group you compete in is slightly more ambitious than average.

2. Tests reasoning skills that take a very long time to develop

You will compete against people who have spent careers or come from educational backgrounds that offer a huge advantage in preparations. In essence, there are two kinds of people who begin to take the GMAT. You need a very strong foundation in simple arithmetic, algebra and geometry for Quant, and a strong foundation in reading comprehension for Verbal. You will need a lot of time to catch up with a lawyer for example in Verbal because they’ve been doing it throughout their whole career.

3. Standardized testing environment that can be intimidating

The testing environment is very hostile and the enforcing of rules is stringent. Even for the well-prepared this can be extremely intimidating. The lack of experience in standardized testing or a propensity to be anxious can damage the prospects for an otherwise prepared candidate. It does happen that some test takers do not succeed in the first or second trial and begin to personalize their performance on the test. As a consequence, they fail to manage their anxiety on future attempts because so much is at stake or because they lost confidence.
This leads us to the following very important section.

How do you prepare for the GMAT?

First determine your current level. The only tool you can rely on to reliably measure your level is an official practice test. Don’t rely on non-official practice tests. They do not replicate the exam environment or the actual GMAT. The following illustration provides an estimate for the time you need to put in to prepare based on your practice test score, and the type of content you need to use and what themes you focus on.

GMAT practice test

Accept that you cannot cram your way into a good score. 3 to 4 session a week of 2 hours for 6 months is a lot more effective than 8 hours a day for 1 month. If your first practice test score is 500, it is extremely unlikely that you will achieve a 700 in less than 6 months of preparation. Realistically it will be about 1 year of prep. It’s a hard fact to accept but a score of 500 means that you have to first develop your foundations in math and reading comprehension.

Study materials

We can group study materials into two main groups. Official preparation material created and released by the GMAC, and non-official material created by the test prep industry.

The makes of the test publish the official guides that you must use as part of your preparation. You can find them here:

Any GMAT preparation plan must have the official prep material at its core. This cannot be emphasized enough. The disadvantage of official prep material is the poor explanation of solutions and concepts. Unless you have a very strong foundation in Math and English you will need a tutor to guide you through the hundreds of questions you have to prepare for. This is the gap that the test prep industry fills. There is a wide spectrum of online platforms and books that provide great help in understanding the concepts tested on the GMAT. However, that is as far as you should rely on them. You must practice using official material. To understand why, it’s helpful to understand how GMAT questions are created:

How GMAT questions are created

First, all questions are created by dedicated and professional psychometricians. Second, and this is the most important part, all questions undergo quality assurance and testing as experimental questions during the GMAT test. Of course, as a test taker you won’t know which questions are experimental. Every question is tested thousands of times and only the questions that conform to a certain profile of selected answer choices are approved for official use. No test prep company can replicate this process.

Why you should only practice with official questions

There is a certain nuance to GMAT questions, a very unique subtlety, that makes them difficult. This difficulty is genuine difficulty that is, as explained above, of assured quality because the questions are tested under strict exam conditions. Test prep company questions can sometimes be difficult, but very often artificially difficult rather than ‘GMAT’ difficult. If you rely on non-official questions to practice, you will be improperly ‘calibrated’ for the GMAT. If you want to learn theory, concepts and strategies to prepare for the GMAT, test prep companies will help you do that. But, only practice using the official GMAT questions available in the official guides and the official practice tests.

A 10-point plan to prepare for the GMAT

1. Take an official practice test.
2. Accept your score and how much time you need to prepare. Remember it’s not an IQ test.
3. Talk to a tutor. Book a 1 hr session to discuss your objectives and ask for any recommendations.
4. Browse the test prep industry platforms, experiment with free trials and determine what platform resonates with your learning style and targets the weaknesses you need to address.
5. Make a plan, and commit to it.
6. Remember that progress will take time, so do not obsess over measuring your progress.
7. Build your foundations if you have to.
8. Review concepts specifically tested on the GMAT
9. Practice with the official guides thoroughly and review your mistakes thoroughly.
10. Measure your progress at ~2 month intervals using only official practice tests.

The biggest mistakes people make

1. Refusing to accept their level and expecting big improvements in a short amount of time.
2. Obsessing over how to solve problems using ‘tricks’ instead of improving the skill of understanding problems.
3. Wasting the official gmat prep mock tests by being in denial about progress and wanting to see results sooner.

These are the three main mistakes that I’ve seen many GMAT test takers and aspiring MBA candidates make over the years. Don’t be a statistic, be a success story. It’s a choice.

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