GMAT Basics: What to Expect, What is a Good GMAT Score, How to Test

December 15, 2013
Kaplan GMAT

The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is probably unlike any test you’ve ever taken in your academic career. The GMAT is a computer-adaptive test designed to provide a common yardstick by which business school admissions committees can measure applicants and their ability to succeed in their M.B.A. programs.

The test consists of three sections and is scored on a range between 200 and 800.

GMAT sections

Your GMAT Score

GMAT scores are used by business schools to provide a common yardstick to compare candidates for admission. On the GMAT, you will actually receive four scores:

  • A total score, ranging from 200-800
  • A math subscore, ranging from 0-60
  • A verbal subscore, ranging from 0-60
  • A score for your AWA, ranging from 0-6
  • An Integrated Reasoning subscore, ranging from 1-8

Your Percentile Rank

Each of the above scores will be accompanied by a percentile rank. The percentile rank highlights what proportion of test takers scored lower than you on the test. The higher the percentile rank, the better you did. For example, if you received a rank of 56, you did better than 56% of test takers. This number shows business schools exactly where you fell with respect to other candidates who took the test.

Your Essay Score

Your essay will be given a separate score on a 0-6 scale by two different graders—a human and a computer called the “e-rater.” Your essay is graded holistically, taking into account content, writing style, and grammar. If the two grades agree, that score will be assigned. If they are markedly different, a third grader, a person, will read the essay to determine the grade.

So what makes a great score?

Although the median score is approximately 540, the latest U.S. News and World Report guide reports that the average GMAT scores of the top programs—such as Stanford, Sloan, Kellogg and Wharton—hover around 709. As you can see, the environment is extremely competitive—a 709 translates into the 92nd percentile.

GMAT scores

What you consider a good score will depend on your own expectations and goals. Still, you should keep in mind that top M.B.A. programs consider at least a 600 as competitive. Research the average scores of your target schools and then develop a prep plan to achieve it.

The GMAT Quantitative Section

The Basics

  • Time: 75 minutes
  • Format: 37 questions
  • Tests: Arithmetic, Algebra, and Geometry

The GMAT Quantitative Section is designed to test your content and analytical knowledge of basic math concepts, including arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. The section consists of two question types: Data Sufficiency and Problem Solving.

What is Data Sufficiency?

Data Sufficiency questions consist of a question and 2 statements of data. It’s your job to determine whether the statements provide sufficient data to answer the question. This question type really requires you to quickly identify what information you would need to know and to efficiently eliminate answer choices.

GMAT Problem Solving

You’ve been here before…Problem Solving is the classic standardized test question type. You’ll be presented with a question and 5 possible answer choices. Problem Solving questions test your skills in high school-level math. Simple, right? Well, when’s the last time you tried your hand at high school math questions? If you answered, “high school,” then you’ll want to brush up. The key to success is to clearly understand what the question is asking and to avoid answer traps.

Watch the video on the right for more detailed information. Also, watch a Kaplan strategy of the GMAT Quantitative section.

The GMAT Verbal Section

The Basics

  • Time: 75 minutes
  • Format: 41 questions
  • Tests: Reading, Grammar, Analytical Reasoning

The GMAT Verbal Section is designed to test your command of standard written English, your skills in analyzing arguments, and your ability to read critically. The section consists of 3 question types: Critical Reasoning, Sentence Correction, and Reading Comprehension.

What is Critical Reasoning?

Critical Reasoning tests the skills involved in making and evaluating arguments, as well as formulating a plan of action. You will be presented with a short argument and a question relating to it. You will be expected to find the answer choice that strengthens or weakens the argument. You may also be asked to find an assumption the argument makes or to make an inference yourself.

Succeeding on Critical Reasoning questions requires 4 things:

1. Understand the argument’s structure.

2. Identify the conclusion.

3. Determine what evidence exists to support the conclusion.

4. Determine what assumptions are made to jump from evidence to conclusion.

Most importantly, read carefully. Critical Reasoning questions are notorious for their tricky wording.

The Challenge of Sentence Correction

How are your written English skills? You’ll find out with Sentence Correction questions. You will typically face very long and contorted sentences. A part—or all—of the sentence will be underlined; and you will be asked to find the best version of the underlined section out of the original or one of four alternatives.

Sentence Correction questions commonly contain 2 or more errors. Time is of the essence as sentences vary in length and complexity. You’ll need to move considerably faster on the shorter questions to have time to tackle the more difficult ones.

GMAT Reading Comprehension

You have probably become quite familiar with Reading Comprehension questions over your standardized testing career. These questions test your critical reading skills, more specifically, your ability to:

  • Summarize the main idea
  • Differentiate between ideas stated specifically and those implied by the author
  • Make inferences based on information in a text
  • Analyze the logical structure of a passage
  • Deduce the author’s tone and attitude about a topic

You will be presented with a reading passage on the topics of business, social science, biological science or physical science and then asked 3-4 questions about that text. The tone is that of a scholarly journal.

When reading a passage, remember that you’re not trying to memorize all the information. First, read through it quickly, trying to get an idea of the general topic, the author’s purpose, his or her voice, and the scope of the passage. Most of all, don’t obsess over details—you can always look them up in the passage.

Watch the video on the right for more detailed information. Also,watch a Kaplan strategyof the GMAT Verbal section.

The GMAT Integrated Reasoning Section

As of June 5, 2012, the GMAT has been revamped with the inclusion of the new Integrated Reasoning (IR) section. This version of the GMAT will require more study time and familiarity with new question types to achieve a high score. Kaplan courses include a dedicated session on Integrated Reasoning, and all 9 CATs included in the Kaplan GMAT program—including the Official Test Day Experience—contain a full-length, scored IR section.

The Integrated Reasoning section contains four new, multi-step question types to master on top the five existing types in the Quant and Verbal sections. Integrated Reasoning also carries an additional score on which schools will evaluate candidates.

For all test takers, the addition of Integrated Reasoning means more hours of studying for an already rigorous test. Prior to the test change, top-scoring GMAT takers had to put in an average of 100 hours of prep time, making 120 hours the best practice for planning. With the new section, however, that number has increased to 150 hours of preparation.

The GMAT Analytical Writing Assessment Section

The Basics

  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Format: 1 essay
  • Tests: Ability to analyze an argument

The Analytical Writing Assessment on the GMAT helps business schools analyze your writing skills. It’s scored separately from your 200-800 point score, on a scale from 0-6 in increments of 0.5. Essays are scored by a human grade and a computer grading system, and the 2 scores are averaged for your final score.

Analysis of an Argument

This question type presents a brief argument similar to a statement you would find in a critical reasoning question. Your task is to write an essay that critiques the structure of the argument and explains how persuasive or unpersuasive you find it. You should not try to present your own point of view on the topic; instead present a critique of the author’s argument. Consider the following questions:

  • What’s the conclusion?
  • What evidence is used to support the conclusion?
  • What assumptions does the writer make in moving from evidence to conclusion?
  • Is the argument persuasive?
  • What would make it stronger? Weaker?

The Computer Adaptive Test (CAT)

The GMAT computer adaptive test (CAT) is more than just a computerized version of a paper-and-pencil test. On the GMAT, the CAT actually adapts to your performance as you’re taking the test. Understanding how the CAT works and knowing a few strategies specific to this particular format can have a direct, positive impact on your score.

When you begin the GMAT, the computer assumes you have an average score and gives you a question of medium difficulty. As you get answers correct, the computer serves up more difficult questions and increases its estimate of your ability. And vice versa, as you answer incorrectly, the computer serves up easier questions and decreases its estimate of your ability. Your score is determined by an algorithm that calculates your ability level based not just on what you got right or wrong; but also on the difficulty level of the questions you answered.

You only have one shot…

Because each answer directly affects the next question, the CAT does not allow you to go back to questions you’ve already answered. On the GMAT CAT, you see only one question at a time. You won’t see the next question until you’ve provided an answer to the one in front of you. Once you’ve confirmed your answer, that’s it.

If you don’t know, guess

Since you can’t revisit previous questions, if you don’t know an answer, guess. Try to guess strategically by eliminating wrong answer choices, etc. But since there is a penalty for each unanswered question, it’s even better to guess randomly than leave a question unanswered.

How to Register for the GMAT

You can register online for the GMAT at The cost—or “appointment fee”—to take the exam is currently $250. The Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) takes personal checks, money orders, and most major credit cards.

If you’re re-taking the GMAT, just follow the same procedures. However, keep in mind that you are not allowed to take the GMAT more than once in any 31-day period.



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