Ready for Business School But Nervous About the GMAT? What You Need to Know for Test Day
Updated: Feb 8
Most of my students start off nervous – a very natural feeling to have! Business school is a big deal, and getting into the right program can make all the difference. Reaching your target test score is a crucial component of getting accepted. The first step to preparing for the GMAT? Understanding what’s on the test. Let’s get into it!
Why should you care about what’s on the test?
To get to your goal (i.e. to your target score!) you need to know two things:
your starting point
the steps to get there.
The biggest step? Practicing. It’s obvious that if you’re trying to get a pilot’s license, practicing scuba diving isn’t going to do much good. Likewise, you need to practice what the GMAT tests. This article makes sure you're focusing on the right things.
Time and again I see students fall into three common traps:
neglecting the most common topics
obsessing over the least common topics (looking at you, combinatorics!)
ignoring the most important part of all: how exactly does the GMAT test you on those topics?
What do I mean? The GMAT tests application more than it tests concepts. The GRE and the GMAT cover much the same core verbal and mathematical concepts. Yet, the way they test them differs enough to change how you should prepare.
One example? Students often find GMAT quantitative problems harder than GRE quantitative problems. Have linear equations become more confusing from one test to another? No! The application of the concept has changed.
Now, you might be asking yourself, “So…do I need to know the concepts?” The answer is yes. You won’t be able to apply anything without a foundational understanding. That said, you can’t stop after understanding the core ideas. To get your target score, you must understand how the GMAT tests you.
What are the core skills you’ll need for the GMAT?
The core skills are the same as they are for almost every standardized test:
As noted above, acquiring these skills is the first step. Once mastered, they serve as the foundation on which you learn to answer GMAT problems. Let’s break each down in more detail.
Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension on the GMAT is not the same as it is in your standard humanities class. It is much less about “what” the passage is talking about and way more about the “how” and “why” of the passage. Going beyond the details of the passage, you need to understand the structure of the argument.
For example, it's not enough to notice that a sentence is a statement. You have to delve deeper: is it evidence for the thesis? is it evidence of a counterargument? is it background information?
Vocabulary
The vocabulary on the GMAT is at an academic level, so you need to be at that level too. Unlike the GRE, you only need to know enough to understand the sentences the words are in. Sometimes the context of the sentence will let you get away with having a more general sense of the word.
It’s good practice to have a way to build up (or at least maintain!) your vocabulary at this academic level. That said, the pressure is not as intense as it would be on the GRE.
Grammar
Sentence correction questions (covered below) test your editing skills. The most common editing skill tested? Your ability to recognize incorrect grammar and fix it.
Math Concepts
The GMAT has five categories of math concepts:
Value, Order, and Factors
This falls under the category of arithmetic. You need to understand numbers and their relationship to other numbers. This includes understanding basic operations, factors & divisibility, exponents, and different number forms (fractions, decimals, mixed numbers, etc.). All the other math sections build on these skills, so if you’re rusty start here!
Algebra, Equalities, and Inequalities:
This is what most students think of when they think of math:
functions (including linear and quadratic equations)
inequalities
manipulating algebraic expressions.
Once you've mastered "Value, Order, and Factors," focus on mastering this category next.
Rates, Ratios, and Percents:
As you may have guessed, this topic covers rates, ratios, and percents. These concepts are often tested in an applied context. For example, unit conversion is not likely to come up in an abstract context. Instead, the question will test it in the context of a real-life scenario (like a mixture problem). Be prepared for word problems about these concepts.
Statistics, Sets, Counting, Probability, Estimation, and Series:
My students are most scared of this category -- especially permutations and combinations. The nice thing? Statistics is the most tested concept of this section – not permutations and combinations. So remember: master mean, median, and mode before mastering combinatorics.
Geometry:
Geometry tends to be divisive among my students. What’s nice is that, as opposed to most geometry classes, geometry questions on the GMAT are not proof based. Instead, they need you to complete three steps:
1. understand the information given
2. know the relevant geometric relationships -- for example, what is the area of a triangle?
3. apply both to solve for an answer
Data Interpretation
Being able to interpret presented data is in and of itself a skill tested on the GMAT. When you see a graph, chart, frequency table, etc., first understand what it is telling you. For some problems understanding the graph is enough. For others, you'll need to plug data from the graph into an equation.
Math Facts
On the GMAT you do not get a calculator for the quantitative section. That’s right, NO CALCULATOR. As such, math facts are as important as ever! It’s no fun to miss a problem just because you multiplied 6*8 incorrectly (that’s the one that always gets me!). So, you need to whip your math facts into shape before test day.
NOTE: You do get a calculator for the Integrated Reasoning section. You still need your math facts for the quantitative section!
Now I know the skills I need. How do I get them?
This is a topic all on its own, and as I complete articles/videos on how to do this I will be linking them for each skill. For now, rest assured that every skill is learnable!
Okay great, I have the foundational knowledge. Now tell me about the questions!
There are 4 sections on the GMAT:
Each has its own set of question types, so let’s look at it section by section.
Quantitative Reasoning
There are two types of quantitative problems: problem solving and data sufficiency.
Problem Solving
This is the type of quantitative problem most people think of when they think of a “math question.” The stem gives information and asks a question. The GMAT gives you 5 possible answers, only one of which is correct. Your job is to use the information to figure out the correct answer.
“Problem Solving questions are designed to test your basic mathematical skills and understanding of elementary mathematical concepts, as well as your ability to reason quantitatively, solve quantitative problems, and interpret graphic data.” (GMAT Official Guide 2022, p. 109)
The most important part of the GMAT is applying your understanding. How to apply? Use your foundation to “reason quantitatively” and “solve quantitative problems.” (NOTE: "interpret graphic data" aligns with the “data interpretation” skill noted above). Let's take a deeper look!
“reason quantitatively”:
First, translate English into math so that you can identify the important information. Second, identify the question. There will be questions where it takes time to understand the question. In those cases, you need to have a strategy to get a grasp of the question.
“solve quantitative problems”
This is where the rubber hits the road. After reasoning through the problem, pick a strategy to solve the problem. Will you use algebra? Will you brute force your way to the answer? Will you draw a picture? There are many ways to solve any one problem. There is no right way. But, there is likely a way that’s better for you.
For example, I tend to make a lot of simple errors (missing a sign, writing down the wrong number, etc.). Strategies with less computation are better for me -- I have fewer opportunities to mess up. That does not mean those strategies are best for you. Your test preparation requires experimenting to figure out the best strategies for you.
Data Sufficiency
Most students have never seen anything like a data sufficiency problem. The stem provides information and one of two types of questions:
a yes/no question
a value question
Then there are two statements with further information. Your job is to ask, “Does this statement give me enough information to answer the question?” You will check each statement on its own first. If it contains enough information to answer the question, it is sufficient. If not, it is insufficient.
Let's see this in the context of a non-math “yes/no” question:
Does Stephen want to go on a date with me?
Stephen says yes, he wants to go on a date with me.
Stephen says no, he does not want to go on a date with me.
BOTH OF THESE STATEMENTS ARE SUFFICIENT. I have enough information to answer the question. This trips up a lot of students. Both a "yes" and a "no" are sufficient answers.
But, what if Stephen said maybe? I would not have enough information to answer the question. In other words, I don’t know if he does or does not want to go on a date with me. Insufficient.
Now let’s look at a “value question”:
How many cats does Sarah have?
The only type of pet Sarah has is a cat. No dogs, iguanas, parakeets, or other types of pets.
Sarah has only one pet.
Statement one on its own is insufficient. It says Sarah has cat(s), but does not tell me how many. I only know that it is more than 0.
Statement two on its own is also insufficient. It says Sarah owns one pet but does not tell me what type of pet she has.
This is where the GMAT gets interesting! If both statements are insufficient on their own, the GMAT asks you to check them together. My recommendation? Re-reading the statements together as if they were one big statement. In this case, the new statement would be:
1+2. The only type of pet Sarah has is a cat. No dogs, iguanas, parakeets, or other types of pets. Sarah has only one pet.
Ah! This statement is sufficient. I know Sarah has one cat, so, yes, I can determine the exact value.
Now that we’ve looked at the two types, let’s look at the 5 answer choices you will see for data sufficiency questions:
A) Statement (1) ALONE is sufficient, but statement (2) alone is not sufficient.
B) Statement (2) ALONE is sufficient, but statement (1) alone is not sufficient.
C) BOTH statements TOGETHER are sufficient, but NEITHER statement ALONE is sufficient.
D) EACH statement ALONE is sufficient.
E) Statements (1) and (2) TOGETHER are not sufficient.
The answer choices are always the same, so you can use the same method for each data sufficiency problem. That method will be covered in a future article.
NOTE: There is one important myth about quantitative problems I want to clear up. The myth? Hard quantitative questions are hard because of the concepts. This can be true, but much more often a question is hard because of the reasoning behind it.
Verbal Reasoning
There are three types of verbal questions:
Reading Comprehension
Like reading comprehension on other standardized tests, the GMAT first presents a passage. Then it asks questions about the passage. The difference, as noted above, is that most questions focus on the “how” and “why” of the passage – not the “what.”
Sentence Correction
As discussed above, these questions test your editing skills. Most often, this means your ability to identify and correct grammatical errors. Grammar comes first, but you still need to pay attention to style, clarity, and verbosity.
Critical Reasoning
Critical reasoning is often the most challenging verbal question type. The question provides a prompt and then asks a question about that prompt. Most often, you need to identify the underlying assumption(s) of the argument. Understanding argument construction is vital to performing well on this section.
Integrated Reasoning
The test will give you different types of information from different sources. Your task is to navigate and synthesize that information to answer questions. The timing on this section can be especially difficult as you only have 30 minutes to answer 12 questions.
Analytical Writing Assessment
The prompt will include an argument, and your job is to understand and critique the argument. This requires understanding the argument's construction and identifying its weaknesses and strengths. This is not your opinion on the topic.
How is the GMAT structured?
Each section has a different number of questions and a different amount of time allotted:
Section | # of Questions | Time Allotted | Time per Question |
Quantitative Reasoning | 31 | 62 min | 2 min |
Verbal Reasoning | 36 | 65 min | ~1 min 45 sec |
Integrated Reasoning | 12 | 30 min | 2.5 min |
Analytical Writing Assessment | 1 | 30 min | 30 min |
There are optional 8-minute breaks approximately every hour. On test day, you have three options on what order you’d like these sections to appear:
Option 1
Analytical Writing Assessment
Integrated Reasoning (then break)
Quantitative Reasoning (then break)
Verbal Reasoning
Option 2
Verbal Reasoning (then break)
Quantitative Reasoning (then break)
Integrated Reasoning
Analytical Writing Assessment
Option 3
Quantitative Reasoning (then break)
Verbal Reasoning (then break)
Integrated Reasoning
Analytical Writing Assessment
What order should I pick?
I find there are two philosophies:
Start with your hardest section because you’ll be the freshest for it.
Start with your best section so you have a confidence boost before your harder sections.
I have not found a consistent way to predict which method will work best for a student. Instead, I’ve found it best to try both methods and see which works better for youon.
How is the GMAT scored?
The score most people refer to, your "Total Score," is 200 - 800. It is based on your quantitative reasoning score (6 - 51) and your verbal reasoning score (6 - 51).
Per the GMAT Official Guide 2022, "Your score is determined by:
The number of questions you answer
The number of questions you answer correctly or incorrectly
The level of difficulty and other statistical characteristics of each question” (p. 8)
Integrated Reasoning is scored 1 - 8. The Analytical Writing Assessment is scored 0 - 6.