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How Hard Is the GMAT?

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So, you’ve decided to attend business school and pursue your MBA. You’ve updated your resume or CV, contacted mentors who’ve agreed to write you a recommendation, gathered your academic transcripts from your undergrad days, and now it’s time to prepare for…the GMAT.

As with any standardized exam, the GMAT’s difficulty level may vary for different test takers. In general, it’s considered challenging. But how hard is the GMAT, really? 

If you’ve read Clear Admit’s Real Humans of the MBA series, you’ll notice the number one response to the question, What is one part you would have skipped if you could—and what helped you get through it? is the GMAT. Abbey Schmitt of Northwestern Kellogg’s MBA Class of 2024 responded most directly, “Studying for the GMAT. Target Test Prep was an amazing resource for the GMAT and also had great essay guidance.” Carter Douglas, in the Johns Hopkins dual degree MBA/MA program, Class of 2024, explained, “I would have skipped taking the GMAT exam if I could. I struggled with the exam, especially the quantitative portion, despite having studied a lot before the test. However, knowing that pursuing an MBA is what I wanted gave me the motivation to keep learning and trying my best to overcome the more complicated parts of the exam.” And for Morgan Kerfeld of Minnesota Carlson’s MBA Class of 2024, “I would have loved to skip the GMAT/GRE requirement, as many others probably would have also enjoyed skipping. That said, prep books and YouTube videos were the most helpful in getting me through the exam with a score I was happy to send.”

“Like any standardized test, the GMAT is challenging, as it tests a wide range of quantitative and qualitative skills,” explains Clear Admit’s Graham Richmond. “For anyone who has taken the SAT or similar exams, there will be similarities, but even if you’ve never seen a standardized test before, there are ample prep books and sample exams out there to help one get ready.”  

The total score range for the GMAT is 200 to 800. While most test-takers score between 400 and 600, a score of 700 or above is what top-tier business schools expect from their applicants. Preparation is critical to doing well on the GMAT. Prospective MBA applicants spend months studying and taking practice exams. Many resources, such as study guides, online courses, and tutoring services, are available to help you prepare. 

What Can I Expect from the GMAT? 

GMAC recently announced changes to the GMAT that will go into effect later in 2023. Below are the sections of the test and how much time is allotted in its present form. Note that you can choose the order of the sections on test day:  

Quantitative (62 minutes)
Many test-takers are intimidated by the quantitative portion of the exam. However, the math skills tested on the GMAT are generally considered to be at a high school level. Though the questions are challenging and require a deep understanding of the underlying concepts, those concepts should be familiar: basic operations, linear and quadratic equations, inequalities, and basic geometry, including properties of lines, shapes, and angles. You cannot use a calculator for this section, but the questions are in multiple-choice format, and you’re provided with materials to write out your calculations. 

Verbal (65 minutes)
The verbal section tests reading comprehension and critical reasoning in multiple-choice format. You’ll have to demonstrate the ability to read and understand complex passages, analyze and evaluate the arguments and ideas presented, and draw conclusions based on the information provided. This section also includes questions on identifying and correcting grammar, usage, and syntax errors. 

Integrated Reasoning (30 minutes)
The Integrated Reasoning section tests data analysis, requiring the interpretation of data from charts, graphs, tables, and other sources and the ability to use probability and statistics to solve problems. These questions are also in multiple-choice format, but most require more than one response.

Analytical Writing Assessment (30 minutes)
This is the written essay portion of the exam. Test takers are to write an essay in response to a prompt. This can be challenging for those who struggle with writing and are not used to writing under timed conditions. 

This edition of the test will be administered until early 2024. It was announced that the new format will not include an essay, and the remaining three sections will be 45 minutes each, a steep reduction from the current three-and-a-half-hour run (including breaks). Test takers will also be allowed to review and edit answers, and changes in score reporting to make the process more flexible and responsive. You can read more about the announcement here, and expect more coverage from Clear Admit as details are released. 

What’s Hard about the GMAT?

First, there’s time pressure. With a limited time to complete each section, it can be difficult to read and analyze questions carefully and ensure accurate answers. Choosing the order in which you tackle the sections is essential for your time management. 

Second, the GMAT is also a computer-adaptive test. The order of questions is not predetermined, and you receive one question at a time. As you proceed, the difficulty level of the questions adapts to the test taker’s performance. In some ways, it isn’t testing how smart you are but rather how smart you are relative to others.

Finally, there is your competition. According to data from GMAC, average overall GMAT scores in the United States have consistently increased over the last 20 years. In just the five years between 2017 and 2022, the average score at top MBA programs has gone from 712 to 718. Until recently, MBA admissions used the 80th percentile as the benchmark score for each section of the exam. However, more Chinese and Indian applicants have joined the testing pool. These countries’ academic cultures emphasize math, science, and engineering, increasing scores for the quantitative section so significantly that the same score in the early 2000s, which would have placed you in the 86th percentile, would put you in the 74th percentile a decade later. In response, many schools have moved the quantitative score requirement to the 70th percentile to address this. 

How to Prepare for the GMAT

A structured test prep class is a valuable investment, no matter how familiar you are with the skills tested on the GMAT. Taking a course can help keep you disciplined, especially if it’s been years since the last time you were responsible for homework assignments. You’ll practice with sample tests to review the types of questions you’ll see and experience simulated testing conditions with software. 

“The other thing to keep in mind is that one can improve one’s score over time, with work, and that many candidates take the test more than once before hitting their optimal score,” says Richmond. “This is why my advice for anyone tackling the GMAT would be to budget plenty of time for preparation (ideally at least 6-12 weeks), to take as many full-length, sample exams that you can (under timed testing conditions), and to budget time for an eventual retake of the exam.”

There are self-study test prep courses, individual tutoring, and group or class-setting courses. Some services are highly personalized and focused on your strengths and weaknesses. There are also classes tailored to students with learning disabilities. While there are in-person options, many are conducted online or remotely. Choose a learning environment and approach that best fits your needs and abilities. 

Clear Admit recommends Stacy Blackman Consulting Test Prep Services, whose GMAT and GRE experts have a proven track record of significantly improving test scores. Their test prep is customized to your learning style and foundational knowledge and focuses on a deeper understanding of the content first, followed by efficient test-taking strategies. You can learn more about SBC Test Prep Services here

Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.