Cracking the GMAT Code


If you’re intimidated by the GMAT exam, take comfort in the fact that you’re far from alone. The graduate management admission test is notoriously long and difficult, requiring a great deal of endurance and extensive studying to prepare.

Though you may have heard that some business schools no longer have a policy to require the GMAT test for you to gain admission to their program, you may still want to take the test if you hope to achieve success when you submit an application to the MBA program or univerity you are choosing. Especially if you are interested in a specific, leading institution, the number of applicants and excellent candidates can be especially high. Depending on what you scored, if it was even with or higher than average that year, you may find the college will accept you even if your other academic experience or scores are not stellar.

As with any major challenge, preparation is key. Fully understanding the GMAT prior to taking the test can help clear up any questions and eliminate a lot of confusion on the content of this very hard test. Here are some tips and tricks to cracking the GMAT and earning a score that you’re proud to share when you apply to a business school.

How the GMAT Works

A thorough knowledge of the GMAT system can be the difference between going into the exam with a confident attitude and going in nervous and unsure. Here’s what you need to know about how the GMAT works and what specific terms mean prior to when you start taking the exams.

Computer Adaptive Testing: How It Works

The GMAT is not available anywhere as a paper exam because of its nature as a Computerized Adaptive Test (CAT).

This is a dynamic test that adapts to the knowledge and ability of the test-takers based on previous questions (except for the essay section, of course). Each test is customized in real time based on a computer formula that assesses the student’s skill as the test progresses. The exam begins each section by assuming the student has an average education on the topics covered such as math or quantitative, verbal reasoning or English, written communication, etc. If problems of easy and medium difficulty are consistently answered correctly, the test will become harder.

Only the verbal and quantitative sections of the exam features the computer adaptive testing (CAT) algorithm. The analytical writing and integrated reasoning sections of the test do not.

What You Need to Know About GMAT Questions

The GMAT isn’t necessarily an intuitive exam. You could have the knowledge down back to front, but still get tripped up by the language and structure of the GMAT. It isn’t always clear exactly what’s being asked of you from the way the questions are asked, and it can be stressful for an individual who thought they were well prepared.

To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, take advantage of the online GMAT practice tests you have access to or register for a test prep course or check out books or search for a website that will offer advice on the subject. Notice what questions unexpectedly trip you up, and keep track of patterns to identify what you may be struggling with. Keep track of what you're scoring on each section and check for explanations of the correct answers, and familiarize yourself with the kind of questions the test will be asking you. The more practice you get with quality study materials, the more learning you'll do and the more prepared you’ll be when it matters.

What You Need to Know About the GMAT Format

One of the most difficult parts of the GMAT is how long the test is. Though it was recently cut back to three and a half hours down from four, in its current form it’s still an incredibly grueling and intense exam that stresses out even the most knowledgeable students.

The test is made up of four parts: verbal, quantitative, integrated reasoning, and analytical writing. The sections are timed as follows:

  • Analytical Writing: 30 minutes to write an analysis of an argument
  • Integrated Reasoning: 30 minutes for 12 questions on multi-source reasoning, graphics interpretation, two-way analysis, and table analysis
  • Quantitative: 62 minutes for 31 questions on data sufficiency and problem solving
  • Verbal: 65 minutes for 36 questions on reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and sentence correction

Test takers can choose one of three sectioning orders at the time of testing. The options for test format include:

  • Analytical Writing Assessment, Integrated Reasoning, BREAK, Quantitative, BREAK, Verbal
  • Verbal, BREAK, Quantitative, BREAK, Integrated Reasoning, Analytical Writing Assessment
  • Quantitative, BREAK, Verbal, BREAK, Integrated Reasoning, Analytical Writing Assessment

The two eight-minute long breaks are optional, but recommended in order to keep students from burning out during the test.

Cracking the GMAT: Do’s and Don’ts

Here’s a look at what you should--and shouldn’t--do while preparing for and taking the GMAT.

Do Take the Diagnostic Test

At the beginning of your preparation, take the GMAT diagnostic test. This is a practice test that can identify potential problem areas to work for while studying for the real thing.

The best diagnostic test is offered by the Official GMAT Prep Software, though also offers two free testing options. In the official software, questions will look just like what students will expect to see in the actual exam.

Once you’ve taken a practice test, analyze your results and figure out what you’ll need to focus your study time on before sitting for the GMAT. Aim to take the diagnostic test about several weeks to three months prior to taking the exam and don't be afraid to take it a few times.

Do Create a Study Plan

After taking your diagnostic test and identifying your problem areas, create a custom study plan. Build a schedule that includes all the topics you’ll be tested on, giving extra time to the subjects you may need a little extra brushing up on.

Every study session should be mapped out with a concrete goal. Schedule ahead of time what you’ll be studying, what you’ll be doing (reading, practice questions, etc.), and for how long/how many practice questions.

Make sure your study plan covers one month to several months before you are registered to take the GMAT. This will ensure you have enough time and aren’t cramming in study hours at the last minute. If you cancel your test time, you likely won't receive a refund for the cost of the test.

Do Get Familiar with the Test Environment

Familiarity is key when it comes to cracking the GMAT. You don’t want to see anything that matters for the very first time on exam day. You’ll want to get to know the exam process and testing conditions as much as possible before taking the test.

To make sure you’re ready for the GMAT, practice in a realistic setting whenever you can. If it’s an option for you, make the decision to invest in the Official GMAT Prep Software can give you a leg up when it comes to getting to know the CAT interface and preparing for the types of questions asked in the test.

When simulating the testing process, be as thorough as possible. Know how long the test takes. Take breaks as they would be allowed on test day, and plan snacks and refreshments accordingly. You can even practice taking notes as you may need to the exam (you’ll be provided with a laminated scratch pad for the GMAT). Don’t forget to leave the calculator in the other room; it won’t be allowed on test day.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make a Guess

Too often, students waste time by spending too long on questions they don’t know. Other students may spend too long trying to answer the first several questions at the expense of the rest of the section. Their GMAT scores suffer because of this.

Ultimately, it’s much more important to complete the exam than to get every question correct. Timing is of the utmost importance when taking the GMAT, and getting stuck on a single question can prevent you from being able to finish the rest of the exam at a comfortable pace.

If you’re stumped on a question, try and make an educated guess. Use the process of elimination to narrow it down, and you’ll have a better chance of getting it right.

Don’t Rush Through the Exam

One common mistake made by students taking the GMAT is to rush through as many questions as possible. They think that by saving time where they can, they’ll have time left over when they need it.

Don’t make this mistake. Every passage and line of the GMAT is meant to be comprehended in full. You’ll need to figure out exactly what’s being asked of you in each question, while also keeping track of key facts and figures. Never skim any part of the GMAT.

Instead, pay close attention to your pacing throughout the exam. For the verbal and quantitative sections, try to follow these guidelines:

For the quantitative section:

  • By question 5, you should have 52 min. remaining
  • By question 10, you should have 42 min. remaining
  • By question 15, you should have 32 min. remaining
  • By question 20, you should have 22 min. remaining
  • By question 25, you should have 12 min. remaining

For the verbal section:

  • By question 10, you should have 47 minutes remaining
  • By question 20, you should have 29 minutes remaining
  • By question 30, you should have 11 minutes remaining

Practice using these guidelines to be as comfortable as possible when you’re sitting for the real exam.

Don’t Worry About the CAT Format

Some students try to guess which questions are labeled as difficult by the CAT algorithm, and may spend more time answering those.

According to experts, don’t bother. It’s nearly impossible to tell how much weight the GMAT attaches to each question. Even industry professionals who take the test as a way to stay up to date on their skills are unable to deduce what questions are assigned which difficulty level. Not only that, but what’s easy for one test taker may be difficult for another. There is no one universal way to gauge the difficulty of the GMAT questions.

Instead, spend an equal amount of time on each question, no matter the difficulty. Be as thorough as possible when answering each question, but not at the expense of the rest of the questions in the section.