How to Study for the GMAT

Choosing to go back to school to earn your MBA is anything but a snap decision. Determining whether an MBA is right for you, much less which MBA program, can require a considerable investment of research resources. Furthermore, once you have made your decision and are ready to begin the application process, you need to begin preparing for the GMAT or the Graduate Management Admission Test created and administered by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). Many accredited MBA programs require prospective students to take this test to show their readiness for graduate studies.

Why Is the GMAT Important?

Like the SAT or the GRE, the GMAT is a standardized test. Unlike those more generalized assessments, however, the GMAT has been carefully designed according to management-specific criteria. According to GMAC, "Based on nearly 400 studies over the past 20 years, the median correlation between GMAT scores and mid-program graduate management school grades is much higher (0.48) than the relationship between undergraduate GPAs and mid-program graduate management school grades (0.30)." In other words, the statistics favor GMAT scores over other measures of academic achievement in terms of predicting any given candidate's successfully completing their MBA.

What can you expect from the GMAT? What GMAT study tools are available, and how do they give you an advantage? What can you do to increase your GMAT score and vault yourself into the top percentile?

Know the Basics

The exam itself consists of four sections. Three of these sections focus on reading comprehension, verbal fluency and critical thinking skills. You will be asked to read and analyze an essay, interpret graphs and charts, employ proper grammar and punctuation, and define key concepts. Only one section is dedicated to quantitative problem-solving: math. Target your relative areas of strength and weakness and plan accordingly.

Integrative Reasoning Section

Of the four sections, the second, "integrative reasoning," is relatively new to the GMAT. It was added in 2012, and according to Amy Choi of Bloomberg, "So many people wanted to avoid taking integrated reasoning that GMAC saw a historic spike in test-takers the year before it was introduced." GMAC explains, "The Integrative Reasoning section of the GMAT measures your ability to evaluate information presented in multiple formats from multiple sources -- skills you need to succeed in our technologically advanced, data-driven world."

These integrative reasoning questions will test your skills at interpreting different visual representations of information. Choi further notes, "… schools are still determining how to use it for admissions." However, if you know you are strong in this area, leverage that ability. Choi goes on to report, "At Vanderbilt's Owen School of Management ... high integrated reasoning scores can help Owen find students who scored poorly on quant but would be worth a chance."

Forget Pencil and Paper

You will need to be able to read and follow instructions from a computer screen to complete the exam. To ensure the validity of your test score, security at the testing center will be tight. Personal effects, including pens, pencils and paper, are not permitted in the test area. Instead, the testing center will supply you with a set of dry-erase sheets and markers. Practice getting comfortable with these tools before your exam date.

Overview, Format and Content of the GMAT

Test Section Questions Subject Matter Time Allotted
Analytical Writing Assessment 1 (essay) Analysis of argument 30 minutes
Integrative Reasoning 12 (some multi-part; multiple choice) Multi-Source reasoning, Graphics interpretation, Two-Part analysis,Table analysis 30 minutes
Quantitative 37 (multiple choice) Data sufficiency, Problem solving 75 minutes
Verbal 41 (multiple choice) Reading comprehension, Critical reasoning, Sentence correction 75 minutes

Get Your Timing Down

You will have three hours and 30 minutes to complete the GMAT. You'll have a half-hour each to complete sections one and two. For sections three and four, you will have the benefit of over an hour to work on each set of questions. However, the number of questions also increases with each section. Section one consists of a single essay question. Section three is 37 questions long, and section four has 41 questions. Both of the latter sections are multiple choice. Even though the time allocations for these sections of the GMAT are more ample, you will still have an average of approximately two minutes to spend on each question.

Are There Breaks During the Test?

Within this three-and-a-half-hour testing block, you will have two optional 8-minute breaks. Use these breaks wisely. Bring a snack if you know you will need to refuel at some point in the exam. Before entering the actual testing area, make sure to note the location of the restrooms and any other facilities you may want to take advantage of while on your break. Remember that leaving the testing area will require you to pass through security again. Make sure to budget enough time to re-enter the testing area. You may have to present a valid form of identification every time you re-enter. If, for some reason, you are unable to resume the GMAT within eight minutes, the excess time will be deducted from the amount allotted for the next test section. Finally, you will have to keep track of time by means of a simple wristwatch. No cell phones, stopwatches or alarm-equipped digital timepieces are allowed in the testing area.

Beware the Curve-Buster

The quantitative and verbal sections of the GMAT are adaptive. The GMAT employs an algorithm which immediately registers whether you have answered a question correctly and then deploys a question that is either more or less challenging based upon this measure of your performance. The good news is that the GMAT is not inflexible and can actually help you at times when you are struggling. The bad news is that guessing may actually put you in a position where the test becomes more difficult. Pay special attention to the ebb and flow of the questions in these sections, and think strategically about the value of admitting to your uncertainty with respect to certain questions.

How Is the GMAT Scored?

Your GMAT score does not reflect only which questions you got right and which you got wrong. Your GMAT score is a representation of your ability, and that ability is being defined contextually. GMAC identifies questions as more or less difficult based on how frequently test respondents are able to answer them correctly. Therefore, if your score places you in the top 90 percentile, that number does not translate into a 90 out of 100 score. Instead, that number corresponds to your consistently arriving at the correct answer for questions only 10 percent of other test-takers also answered correctly.

Take Practice Tests

While you are brushing up on your algebra and how to calculate percentages, also take practice tests. Free practice and preparation software is available directly from GMAC. These practice tests will help you learn to recognize which questions are likely to stump you. Don't waste time on questions you know are beyond your ability. Your primary focus should be on completing the exam. The penalty for leaving questions in the Quantitative and Verbal sections blank is actually greater than the penalty for answering them incorrectly. How much greater? Each unanswered question will reduce your final GMAT score by three percentage points.

Baylor University's online MBA program requires the GMAT unless you have a minimum of four years of post-graduate, leadership or project management experience. Learn more about the GMAT score you should aim for and the other admissions requirements for Baylor's online program.

Learn more about the Baylor online MBA program.


Sources:

Graduate Management Admission Council - Validity, Reliability & Fairness

Bloomberg: I Took the GMAT With No Preparation. Here's What Happened

The Official Website of the GMAT: Integrated Reasoning Section

The Official Webite of the GMAT: Prepare for the GMAT Exam

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